Tag Archives: Rascal Flatts

Single Review: Rascal Flatts, "Come Wake Me Up"

“Come Wake Me Up” is the best composition that Rascal Flatts has tackled in a very long time, and the opening verse is a beautiful throwback to the sound of their best song to date, “I’m Movin’ On.”

Now, imagine if “I’m Movin’ On” had reached the chorus, and a bunch of strings and bombast and general loudness showed up.   It would ruin the intimacy of the song, wouldn’t it?

That’s mostly what happens here.  I stop at mostly because Gary LeVox has become so adept at the adult contemporary powerhouse vocals that he’s able to keep control of the proceedings, so the recording doesn’t end up a bust because Dann Huff couldn’t stop himself from 50mg generic viagra online being Dan Huff.

Huff’s relentless production keeps this from being the timeless recording that it should have been.  But even under all the gloss, there’s an incredible lyric and a nuanced vocal performance. It’s still their best single in a long time, along with one of the better releases of 2012 from any artist.   But if there’s ever a piano-only version of this, it will forever be in my rotation.

Written by Johan Fransson, Tim Larsson, Tobias Lundgren, and Sean McConnell

Grade: B+

Listen: Come Wake Me Up

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Filed under Single Reviews

2012 ACM Awards: Staff Picks & Predictions

Throw on your bedazzled boots – the 47th annual Academy of Country Music Awards air live from Las Vegas this Sunday at 8 p.m. EST. The show promises to be a melting pot of performances, with oddball duets like Rascal Flatts and Steve Martin – and no, that’s not an April Fools joke. The CU staff picked and predicted the awards below. Tell us your thoughts, and check back for our live blog on Sunday night!

Entertainer of the Year

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Taylor Swift – Jonathan, Dan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin, Ben, Sam

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Sam
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Taylor Swift – Jonathan, Dan, Tara, Kevin, Ben

Ben: Okay, so I was going to go with Aldean based on his massive success… but Swift’s music has just been too dang good lately.

Jonathan: Swift is the only one of the five who has released any music I really liked during the eligibility period; that fan voting is part of whatever mysterious algorithm is used to determine the winner of this award helps her case. I recognize that Aldean has a good look at this, too, but I’ll admit to just digging my heels in and refusing to get on board with the idea that he’s considered the standard-bearing artist in country music.

Tara: Swift released some of the best material of her career in the eligibility period, and her star seems as bright as it’s ever been. And while I can’t picture her losing something fan-voted, I wouldn’t be shocked if Aldean snuck up on her, especially given the secret fan / academy vote ratio. I just hope that this time next year, there are a few shake-ups in this category. I’m bored.

Dan: I like Swift the best, but can’t muster the energy to root actively against Aldean like I did with, say, Rascal Flatts.

Kevin:  Aldean vs. Swift, with me erring on the side of the one who made more music that I liked this year.

Sam: Just a hunch, but the Taylor Swift voters might be as fanatical as usual because Carrie Underwood isn’t nominated for this award. That might give Aldean the chance to sneak in.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Dan, Kevin, Sam
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Chris Young – Ben, Jonathan, Tara

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Dan, Sam
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton – Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Chris Young

Dan: Aldean remains the hottest guy out there by a huge margin, and occasionally puts out something decent like “Fly Over States.” I’ll just keep picking him to win this until he does. La la la.

Ben: Aldean’s success speaks for itself, but I would really like to see Chris Young take this. He released a solid new album, remained a consistent hitmaker at radio, and has made the most music that I’ve actually cared about. But seeing as the industry award voters have been showing a lot of excessive Shelton love as of late, my gut says that Blake Shelton is going to get this. (There are no awards for TV Judge of the Year or Newlywed of the Year, so the ACM will probably give him this one instead)

Jonathan: So let’s talk about Chris Young for a minute. The guy has a fantastic voice, one of the strongest and most distinctive instruments to come down Music Row in a minute, and that alone is enough to elevate him above most of the other men who have scored major airplay in the past couple of years. But the discrepancy between the quality of Young’s vocal performances and the quality of the songs he’s performing is a problem, and here’s yet another instance of an artist with the potential to be really and truly great receiving a thumbs-up from the industry for work that’s just occasionally on the better side of okay. Where’s the incentive for someone like Young to be even better if he’s being recognized now? And what does it say that, despite his wildly uneven material, he’s far and away the class of this particular field of nominees?

Tara: I have to disagree with Jonathan on this one; I find Neon to be a refreshing, neo-traditional gem, more organic than it is uneven. In this stage of Young’s career, I view his body of work as a stepping stone and an indication of potential, and I have no issue with it being rewarded. But it won’t be; Mr. Lambert’s got the entertainment industry on lockdown. And I can’t say I really mind.

Kevin: Picking Aldean as the “should win” solely because he had the biggest year, though I suspect Shelton will win anyway.

Sam: I get the love for Miranda Lambert, but the Blake Shelton love is largely lost on me. Not a fan of Aldean either, but he’s due for this award.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Sara Evans
  • Miranda Lambert – Dan, Ben, Tara, Leeann, Sam
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift – Jonathan, Kevin
  • Carrie Underwood

Will Win:

  • Sara Evans
  • Miranda Lambert – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Sam
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift – Kevin
  • Carrie Underwood

Dan: I think Swift has been the strongest solo act this past year, but Lambert released a decent fourth album and a terrific group one. With no place on the ballot to reward Pistol Annies (fix that, CMAs?), this’ll do.

Ben: Swift put out a string of very good singles, but… Four the Record + Pistol Annies = The Miranda Lambert love will be fully justified.

Jonathan: If we’re counting Pistol Annies, then I can absolutely see the case for Lambert and could be convinced to vote accordingly, and I think she still has the momentum to win here. If we’re just looking at solo material, though, I’m unapologetically sticking with Swift’s “Mean” and “Sparks Fly,” which trump anything that the other four women in the category released during the eligibility period. With Underwood having a new album to support and, hopefully, Kellie Pickler getting the recognition she deserves for her latest work, this category should be a hell of a lot more interesting and competitive come CMA time.

Tara: Swift delivered the better material, but Lambert delivered the better performances, Hell On Heels notwithstanding. By my definition of FVOTY, this should go to Lambert. (And I’m stoked for the fall award season, too.)

Leeann:  I have no real reason to believe that the Academy would take this from Lambert this year.

Kevin:  Can you believe that Swift is the only nominee who hasn’t won this yet?  I know Lambert should be the favorite, especially given the ACM’s fondness for her.  But I can’t shake the feeling that she’s lost some momentum with her latest project.

Sam: Miranda will continue to own this category until someone like Carrie Underwood steps up with a new album.

Vocal Duo of the Year

Should Win

  • Love and Theft
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland – Leeann
  • Thompson Square – Dan, Ben, Tara

Will Win:

  • Love and Theft
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Kevin
  • Thompson Square – Jonathan, Tara, Sam

Ben: The Civil Wars are really the only duo I’ve cared about this past year, but they have been stupidly excluded in favor of Love and Theft (who only released one mediocre single in the past year), so I’m going with Thompson Square instead. They’ve been doing well at radio, and their music has not been terribly grating, but I’m pretty sure that the ACM will remain stuck on Sugarland.

Dan: With The Civil Wars absent from ACM’s roster and Sugarland having a messy year across the board, Thompson Square seems like the last band standing. And they’re cute, right?

Jonathan: The song remains the same: This category should’ve been merged with Vocal Group of the Year eons ago to trim the fat. Given that the ACMs are still ostensibly more radio-oriented than the CMAs and that Sugarland have actively alienated radio with the god-awful singles from their god-awful album, I’m going to say that Thompson Square pull off the upset here. Just don’t ask me to hum or even to name more than one of their songs…

Tara: I honestly can’t muster an opinion. What’s Sugarland been up to these days, anyway?

Leeann:  This category isn’t even worth comment this year.

Kevin: Saying somebody should win implies that I think there’s a worthy winner, so I’m just going to say that Sugarland will win.

Sam: No Bellamy Brothers nod? You mean country music actually had five legit nominees for a Duo award this year? Artistically, The Civil Wars and Foster & Lloyd would be the most deserving this year.

Vocal Group of the Year

Should Win:

  • The Band Perry
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Rascal Flatts
  • Zac Brown Band – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin, Sam

Will Win:

  • The Band Perry – Sam
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin
  • Rascal Flatts
  • Zac Brown Band

Ben: I’ve tried to hold out hope that the award industries would lay off the ridiculous Lady A adoration, but the CMAs and Grammys have shown me otherwise.

Jonathan: No reason to think the ACMs will break the trend of giving unearned trophies to the C students in the class.

Tara: I remain firmly in ZBB’s corner; the band produced my favorite single of 2011. But I would much, much prefer this award to go to the flavor of the month Eli Young Band than the flavor of the year Lady Antebellum.

Dan: I miss Little Big Town, but this is the first time in recent memory that this category has had five competitive groups. Like Aldean in the Male Vocalist race, Zac Brown Band sell as well as anyone and haven’t won yet, so I’ll probably keep picking them until they do, too. La la la x2.

Leeann: I’d love to see Zac Brown Band take it this year, but I don’t have enough faith that Lady A won’t just keep the award.

Kevin:  Always gonna root for ZBB.  Just losing hope that they’ll ever actually win.

Sam: ZBB is operating on a higher level than any other vocal group, but I’m alright with The Band Perry’s quirkiness getting some recognition.

New Artist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Brantley Gilbert
  • Hunter Hayes – Dan, Tara
  • Scotty McCreery

Will Win:

  • Brantley Gilbert
  • Hunter Hayes
  • Scotty McCreery – Ben, Dan, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin, Sam

Dan: Of the three, I think Hayes has the most raw talent (played every instrument on his album!) and could one day be an interesting artist. So, vote of optimism! ;D

Ben: I think this will be between Gilbert and McCreery. My gut says Scotty McCreery “will” win, but this line-up is just too depressing for me to make a case for who “should” win. Dan makes a good point about Hunter Hayes though…

Jonathan: I can’t.

Tara: Uh…I guess this is as good a time as any to confess my love for “Storm Warning.”

Leeann: I don’t even have the heart to choose who I think should win, but I’m guessing the “American Idol” winner will win.

Kevin: New Coke >>>> New Artist of the Year.

Sam: This is fan voted, right? Well, if McCreery’s fans can vote him to win “American Idol”…

Album of the Year

Should Win:

  • Eric Church, ChiefDan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin
  • Miranda Lambert, Four The Record – Sam
  • Kenny Chesney, Hemingway’s Whiskey
  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party
  • Lady Antebellum, Own The Night

Will Win:

  • Eric Church, Chief
  • Miranda Lambert, Four The Record
  • Kenny Chesney, Hemingway’s Whiskey
  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda PartyDan, Ben, Sam
  • Lady Antebellum, Own The NightJonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin

Ben: Eric Church edges out Miranda as my pick, but I’m fairly sure this will go to Aldean, and I refuse to predict that Lady Antebellum will win this.

Jonathan: I liked Lambert’s album exponentially less each time I listened to it, so I stopped listening to all but two of its tracks (“Fine Tune” and “Dear Diamond”) months ago to preserve at least some degree of fondness for it. Church’s album has some significant limitations of its own, but, song-for-song, it’s the strongest set in this line-up. I have no idea what I would ever actually say to a person who believes that Richard Marx’s Repeat Offender Amy Grant’s House of Love Lady Antebellum’s Own the Night scans as a country album in any substantive way, or that it’s the best country album of this or any year. But clearly there are people who do believe that, and recent history says there are enough of them for Lady A to win this.

Tara: It’s a toss up between Lambert and Church for me, with Church’s realized hard-assness giving Chief a slight edge. But it’s Lady A’s to lose – and I’m not sure anything in the industry has frustrated me more than their wins as of late. It’s worse than laughably unfair; it’s potential-threatening. And it has to stop.

Dan: When Church is bad, he’s cringe-worthy. When he’s good, he kicks most of the ass he told you he’d kick.

Leeann: I won’t be surprised if Lady A wins, but I’d love to see Eric Church win for the most interesting album of the bunch. I wouldn’t mind seeing Miranda Lambert win either.

Kevin: I just hope I’m wrong a lot this year.

Sam: Pretty sad when a “good for a Jason Aldean album” album beats out two superior albums from Church and Lambert, but I think that will be the case.

Single Record of the Year

Should Win:

  • Eli Young Band, “Crazy Girl”
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”
  • Chris Young, “Tomorrow”
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila” – Ben, Dan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin, Sam

Will Win:

  • Eli Young Band, “Crazy Girl”
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin, Sam
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”
  • Chris Young, “Tomorrow”
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”

Ben: “Tequila” outclasses most of the field, though “Tomorrow” is also a solid contender. I get the novelty value of “Red Solo Cup,” but Single Record of the Year? Nah…

Jonathan: Even for a novelty song, I thought “Red Solo Cup” was poorly constructed and lazily written, but I kind of hope it wins, if only to prove that this year’s ACMs are just a straight-up farce.

Tara: I don’t love any of these, but “You and Tequila” is the only one I can imagine holding up in ten years.

Dan: Whatever.

Leeann: I can’t even believe “Red Solo Cup” is a contender! I’d love to see Kenny win for one of his best recordings, though I suspect Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson will win due to their cross genre appeal and all.

Kevin: Please let me be wrong a lot this year.

Sam: I will be rooting for “Red Solo Cup” and its inspired idiocy, but this could be part of Jason Aldean’s big night at the ACM.

Song of the Year

Should Win:

  • “Crazy Girl” – Lee Brice & Liz Rose
  • “Home” – Brett Beavers, Dierks Bentley & Dan Wilson – Leeann
  • “Just a Kiss” – Dallas Davidson, Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott
  • “Threaten Me With Heaven” – Amy Grant, Vince Gill, Dillon O’Brian & Will Owsley – Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter – Dan, Ben, Sam

Will Win:

  • “Crazy Girl” – Lee Brice & Liz Rose
  • “Home” – Brett Beavers, Dierks Bentley & Dan Wilson – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Sam
  • “Just a Kiss” – Dallas Davidson, Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott – Kevin
  • “Threaten Me With Heaven” – Amy Grant, Vince Gill, Dillon O’Brian & Will Owsley
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter – Leeann

Dan: “Home” has felt like awards bait to me since I first heard it. Me, I’m a “Tequila” guy.

Ben: Ditto to Dan.

Jonathan: As much as I’d like to see Berg and Carter pick up some new hardware, I’d still give the edge to Gill’s song. When “Home” does win, which I agree it will, I’ll just pretend it means that Jason Isbell has finally won a major industry award.

Tara: “Threaten Me With Heaven” is gorgeously written, but I won’t mind if (and when) “Home” takes the award. Country music could use a shot of graceful patriotism.

Leeann: I’m pleased to have three songs that I’d be happy to see win the award this year. I feel like either Chesney or Bentley will rightfully win…I hope so at least.

Kevin:  Pretty please?

Video of the Year

Should Win:

  • Eric Church, “Homeboy”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Just a Kiss”
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean” – Ben, Dan, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin, Sam
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”
  • Jason Aldean, “Tattoos On This Town”

Will Win:

  • Eric Church, “Homeboy”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Just a Kiss”
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean” – Kevin
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup” – Ben, Dan, Jonathan, Tara, Sam
  • Jason Aldean, “Tattoos On This Town”

Ben: I could actually live with “Red Solo Cup” winning this, but I still enjoy “Mean” quite a bit more.  Plus I kind of hate Lady Antebellum’s video for being nothing more than a glorified iPad commercial.  I also think “Mean” deserved a nomination for Single Record of the Year, so I would like to see it acknowledged here.  Still, I don’t think I can bet against “Red Solo Cup.”

Jonathan: That “Mean” didn’t score the Single and Song of the Year nominations with the ACMs that it has elsewhere seems revealing, with “Red Solo Cup” as the most likely beneficiary. I just hope that the faux gravitas of the “Homeboy” clip doesn’t give it any footing.

Tara: I’m equally disappointed that “Mean” didn’t snag a nomination for Single or Song of the Year. With the video almost as freshly produced as the single, it’s an easy one to root for in this category. I have no inkling as to who will win, but I’ll piggyback off of my co-bloggers on the frat party anthem.

Dan: I could do without how the “Mean” clip ends with a little girl idolizing Taylor Swift, but am I gonna vote against the country music video that had the anti-gay-bullying message? No, I’m not.

Kevin: I think the Swift clip has enough pizazz to triumph in the end over Toby’s YouTube video.

Vocal Event of the Year

Should Win:

  • Aaron Lewis featuring George Jones & Charlie Daniels, “Country Boy”
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
  • Brad Paisley featuring Alabama, “Old Alabama”
  • Brad Paisley duet with Carrie Underwood, “Remind Me” – Tara, Kevin, Ben
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila” – Dan, Jonathan, Leeann, Sam

Will Win:

  • Aaron Lewis featuring George Jones & Charlie Daniels, “Country Boy”
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Jonathan, Dan, Leeann, Kevin, Sam
  • Brad Paisley featuring Alabama, “Old Alabama”
  • Brad Paisley duet with Carrie Underwood, “Remind Me” – Tara, Ben
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”

Jonathan: The Lewis track is one of the worst singles of the past five years or more, and its nomination is an indication of how deeply modern country music hates the actual traditions and values of the genre.

Tara: As middle-of-the-road as it is, something in the melody of “Remind Me” intrigues me. And I have a random feeling the voters will use this category to reward their dethroned male and female vocalists of the year.

Dan: It’ll be interesting to see if “Remind Me” can unseat “Don’t You Wanna St– oh, who am I kidding. Nothing is interesting anymore.

Leeann: Ugh. I pretty much know that Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson will win, but I’d love to be wrong. Meanwhile, I continue to faithfully root for the Chesney/Potter collaboration.

Kevin: I like my Vocal Events to be full-out Vocal Events, so I’m going for Paisley/Underwood over Chesney with backing vocals from Potter.  The latter pair made the better record, though.

Ben:  I’m with Tara and Kevin.  “You and Tequila” is the best record overall, but that has more to do with Berg and Carter’s songwriting than with Potter’s contributions.  “Remind Me” is the one that feels like an actual event.

Sam: Aldean & Clarkson outscreamed Paisley & Underwood, so they lay claim to the trophy. Chesney and Potter, what were you two thinking by just going out there and singing? Next time, I want to hear some wailing and primal screams, because that’s what makes for a successful duet these days.

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Single Review: Lionel Richie featuring Shania Twain, “Endless Love”

Lionel Richie’s new country duets project, set for a March 27 release, sounds like the kind of thing that could either go very right (Jennifer Nettles, “Hello”) or very wrong (Rascal Flatts “Dancing On the Ceiling,” anyone?).  We get a taste of the new project with this re-working of Richie’s classic pop duet with Diana Ross, “Endless Love,” sung this time as a duet with Shania Twain.

First, the bad news:  It’s too long.  The first three minutes sound lovely, but the song reaches an overdramatic climax that goes on longer than it should.  Also, the pop-flavored backbeat sounds a bit gaudy – You get over it after a few listens, but the single would be better without it.  Still, the biggest problem is swelling production that attempts to lend drama to the performance, but instead beats the listener over the head with needless distraction.  The production problems are mostly confined to the final minute of the song, but they still lessen the song’s impact instead of adding to it.

Now the good news:  Though filling the shoes of Diana Ross is certainly no easy task, Twain acquits herself more than adequately.  Richie for his part still sounds great, but ultimately the star is Twain.  Twain’s performance is colored with a deep sense of longing, recalling the finest love ballads of her own hitmaking heyday, such as “Forever and For Always,” with the two voices melding together beautifully on the harmonies.

The song had so much going in its favor.  It’s extremely irritating that it’s bogged down by production that gets so stupidly loud and over-the-top.  It would have been better if the production had stayed completely out of the way, and given the two vocalists more room to sell the song with their fanstastic performances.  Overall, this is still an enjoyable duet, but considering they spend the latter part of the song just shouting to be heard, it does fall a degree short of reaching its full potential.

Written by Lionel Richie

Grade:  B-

Listen:  Endless Love

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Single Review: Rascal Flatts, “Banjo”

According to Rascal Flatts bass guitarist Jay DeMarcus, the banjo has become an elusive, endangered species.

(So is a Rascal Flatts rocker that doesn’t want to make you jam with anyone named Elroy, throw away your old Igloo cooler and lose your appetite every time you see a Sonic Drive-In.)

To put the lead single from the formidable trio’s forthcoming eighth studio album in perspective, a brief backstory of the instrument in the spotlight is warranted.

Indeed, the banjo has been long revered as a quintessential ingredient in not only country music, but as an integral part of all American music. Brought to the United States via the slave trade (the earliest documented mentioning of a “banshaw” is generally believed to be 1678, from an autobiographal note in Martinique that describes a convergence of slaves prior to deportation in which one is depicted plucking a “banza”.) Thomas Jefferson, himself, would later recognize this instrument in 1781, who referred to it as a “banjar.”

From the formation of the Sweeney Mistrels to their integration into parlors in mid-nineteenth century Boston, from the emergence of celebrated banjo legends such as Charlie Poole and Earl Scruggs during the mid-twentieth century to helping differentiate American country music from Western European influences then onward……..the banjo, in all its clawhammered, fast-arpeggiated glory, has stood the tests of time and its legacy is secure.

Tragically, recent years have not been kind to this tone-ringed, sometimes fretless, watermark. Since its heyday, it has been relegated from the forefront of traditional American music to something treated like “natural flavor” to add a hint of distinctive zest to modern country radio tracks. You’d be hard-pressed, in fact, to find something on your local radio station’s playlist that prominently features a banjo as opposed to merely being submerged in the mix.

*

But no need to fear, y’all! Rascal Flatts are back to rescue this five-stringed wonder from obscurity………..I guess.

According to an interview by DeMarcus on the eve of this single’s release, he explained that “Banjo” is about “getting away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life” by driving as far out into the backwoods as you can “until you go so far you start to hear a banjo.”

In theory, that makes for an enticing, musical journey. So why is it that “Banjo” is at its most intimate in the opening minute, and ends at its most obstreperous?

The first two verses bow with a notably banjo (!) driven arrangement, free of schmaltzy string arrangements and Huff’s signature 80’s-rawk sensibilities. Lead vocalist LeVox laments how the “B.S.” has gotten so thick in the concrete jungle that he has decided to rev up his four-wheel drive and make a run for the back roads. By the time the chorus kicks in, the trio suddenly regresses to a standard arena-rock chorus that sounds as though it was cloned from “Summer Nights”, with LeVox beseeching you must “kick it into four-wheel drive when you run out of road, and you go……..until you hear banjo.”

“Banjo” steadily ramps it up from there, where LeVox goes on to brag in the third verse that their “little place of heaven hidden” has not been tracked by the satellites or G.P.S. yet (I’m willing to bet the song’s three co-writers we can eventually track it on Google Maps.) Finally, by the time we reach the song’s coda, rather than being greeted with an intimate, back-patio banjo solo or perhaps a whiff of mountain music, the group finally regresses to its stereotypical stadium-rock histrionics, with the touch-ups of banjo deafended by high octane blasts of electric guitar testosterone as the group fist-pumps to battle cries of “Whoa oh oh!”.

If “Banjo” is any sort of musical statement, it is quite a contradictory one. By DeMarcus’s logic……….shouldn’t the song start off dominated by electric guitar, only to gradually veer closer to traditional instruments and sounds as it goes on? It certainly sounds to me like, the more closer the group drives home to the hinterland, the more noise and distraction there tends to be! Perhaps the B.S. is even thicker where the G.P.S. don’t sleep!

Then again, considering the arrangement, suppose we were to re-think “Banjo”. Perhaps, “Banjo”, if anything, is an existential crisis put to music. It concerns a troubled protagonist, who “can’t take a breath without gettin’ sick” in this wasteland of the 21st century, and is idealistically driven to try and find a relic that has been long believed to have faded into obscurity. The longer and longer he drives on, the more desperate he grows, yet his panglossian disposition encourages him to press on. Finally, by the coda, he has started to become unhinged by his migraine-induced desperation that he, emotionally, has “ran out of road” as he hears what sounds like the last banjo crying insolably as it is being usurped and broken apart by stratocasting poachers.

Whatever this single’s three writers were intending, it misfires as a musical statement of sorts. In spite of this, that contradiction doesn’t necessarily defeat the entire listening experience. I for one appreciate the renewed energy output here, especially following back-to-back ballads (and several album cycles dominated by schmaltzy ballads before that). Also noteworthy is the fact LeVox’s vocal performance here is not nearly as overdone as we have been accustomed to hearing of him overall. LeVox actually sounds like he’s enjoying the ride here, rather than belting as though it’s all life or death. He even sounds rapturously laid-back often, most notably during the verses.

If anything, the group would benefit from channeling this sort of renewed hunger a little more often (minus the last 35 seconds)……………..albeit steering clear of lyrical swamps in the vein of offenders like “Bob That Head” and opting for less of Huff’s trademark rawk bombast. “Banjo” may not offer anything new to the table, but it is certain to become a live setlist standout and I can see numerous listeners tuning this up while burning up calories on the treadmill. Who knows, perhaps live renditions of “Banjo” on their forthcoming tour may provide a refuge for various accomplished banjo players to exhibit their skills from city to city. I hope so, anyway.

If you dare not overthink “Banjo”, you’ll likely at least tolerate it in a way you haven’t been able to tolerate previous rockers from Rascal Flatts. If you are hankering for some clawhammering in its most intimate splendor, however………try not to breathe, and keep on drivin’. You ain’t even close.

Grade: C+

Listen: Banjo

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2011 CMA Awards: Staff Picks and Predictions

It’s that time of year again!  The time when we all dutifully tune in to the CMA Awards show, raise our eyebrows at the “What the heck are they doing here?” award presenters, and afterwards complain about how totally un-country the whole show was.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can’t wait.

We’re pleased to share the Country Universe staff picks for this year’s CMA Awards, as well as our predictions of who the winners will be.  This year we have some highly competitive categories in which predicting the winners is quite difficult, leading to some significantly divergent picks among our writing staff.  Agree?  Disagree?  Join in the discussion in the comment thread below, and let us know.

The CMA Awards telecast will air on Wednesday, November 9, 8pm Eastern on ABC-TV.  We will be live blogging the show here at Country Universe, so do be sure to drop by and join in the fun!

Entertainer of the Year

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Kevin
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Taylor Swift – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Tara
  • Keith Urban

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton – Dan, Leeann, Jonathan
  • Taylor Swift – Ben, Kevin, Tara
  • Keith Urban

Dan: I can imagine anyone but Urban taking it, but I like Jonathan’s logic.

Ben:  It’s hard to bet on the Entertainer award going to a female artist, but it seems Swift has undoubtedly had the biggest year of all the nominees.  Her album sold like hotcakes, and produced a trio of killer radio singles, while she topped that off with her Speak Now tour.  That combination should bag her this year’s top prize.

Leeann: Paisley could take it again, but my money’s on the CMA wanting to give it to fresh blood this year. Taylor Swift is who probably actually deserves it, however.

Jonathan:   Paisley is probably the most logical pick, but he didn’t figure as heavily into the nominations this year as he could have, so I’m wondering if the voters have cooled on him as much as the crew here at CU have of late. Swift’s live show should be a factor in this category, but she has a whole lot of gender bias to overcome, and there seems to be at least something of a backlash against her in the country community post-Fearless. Which leaves the ubiquitous Shelton, who has been something of a new “Everywhere Man” for the genre over the past year.

Kevin:  I think Swift will win because she had the highest profile year.  But I think Aldean defines the genre in 2011, for better or for worse.  Mostly worse.

Tara: As I’ve said before, this is the most appropriate way for the voters to reward Swift’s monster success, and for the first time at the CMAs, I truly feel she deserves this award. I’m particularly impressed with the way she continues to cultivate her relationship with her fans. I just hope the voters don’t pair this award with the FVOTY award.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Dan, Ben
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Keith Urban – Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Dan, Ben
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton – Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Keith Urban

Dan:  Aldean’s not my thing, but he’s the biggest guy in the field by an unignorable margin. More than anything, I think the indie Broken Bow Records deserves props for building their flagship artist so well.

Ben:  I’m largely indifferent to this particular field of nominees (save possibly Keith Urban), but Aldean’s massive success should most likely nab him his first Male Vocalist trophy.

Leeann: Again, I think it’s Shelton’s night to sweep in order to shake things up this year. He and Urban have the strongest voices in the category anyway.

Jonathan:  Urban’s the only one of the lot who has released even one single I’ve liked in the past year, so he’d get my vote. Aldean has the commercial clout, sure, but quality has to count for something, right? Voters have looked at the word “Vocalist” in the category name and have passed over Chesney for years, and I wonder if they’ll do the same to Aldean here. I’m thinking yes.

Kevin: Urban’s the one who I can stand to listen to. But if Shelton was able to win last year, I don’t see how he loses this year. Not post-Voice and “Honey Bee.”

Tara: It makes me sad that I can’t find a solid reason to support Urban or Paisley, both of whom I used to feel passionately about. And in all honesty, I can’t find a solid reason to support any of these guys, based on their output during the eligibility period. I’m going to blindly back Urban –who, despite being “Urban-lite” these days, is at least consistent– and predict that Shelton’s amped public profile will give him the edge with voters.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Sara Evans – Kevin
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan
  • Carrie Underwood – Tara

Will Win:

  • Sara Evans
  • Miranda Lambert – Dan, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift – Ben
  • Carrie Underwood

Dan:  Come ACM season, I’ll be all for Lambert; Pistol Annies and Four The Record prove she’s using her new commercial powers nobly. But I like Swift’s performances on Speak Now, and that album just applies more to this awards cycle.

Ben:  Swift is the overall strongest contender, but I could see voters seizing the opportunity to recognize Evans, who released a new album and had a number one single during the eligibility period.  I wouldn’t rule Lambert out either, though she didn’t have as strong a year as she did in 2010.  But I doubt this will be Underwood’s year, and McBride’s was essentially a filler nomination, so I’d say it’s down to Swift, Evans, and Lambert. (But, like Dan, I will totally be Team Miranda when the ACMs roll around)

Leeann: I reflexively say Lambert should win, but Swift has had the best year and will likely win as a result. I won’t be heart broken if Lambert takes it though.

Jonathan:  There’s a part of me that would vote for Lambert on principle and out of loyalty, but I can’t argue with a simple mathematical inequality: “Back to December,” “Mean,” and “Sparks Fly” > “Only Prettier,” “Heart Like Mine” and “Baggage Claim.” Had her label been campaigning harder that she’s never won this award, Evans could’ve been a bigger threat here, but Lambert’s ongoing momentum should carry her to a repeat win.

Kevin: Can this power couple nonsense be derailed?  Probably not, so while I’d rather see Swift get it over Lambert, I’m doubtful it would happen. My real fantasy would be for the only non-winner, Sara Evans, to take it.  For prosperity’s sake, and for actually putting out a great single that I failed to realize was great until it was already a hit.

Tara: This is a tough one for me. Lambert’s worked the genre like no other female has this past year and a half, but the singles she’s released in the eligibility period have been so-so. Swift’s put out some solid material, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to support her winning a vocalist award. And then there’s Underwood, who’s been relatively quiet on the radio front, but whose stunning performance of “How Great Thou Art” back in April went viral and serves as a reminder of what I firmly believe is one of the finest voices in the genre. I’m going with my gut and backing Underwood, but I think the voters will reward Lambert again, which is fine with me.

Vocal Duo of the Year

Should Win:

  • The Civil Wars – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland
  • Thompson Square

Will Win:

  • The Civil Wars
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Thompson Square

Dan:  Seriously, why not the Civil Wars? They’ve sold about as many albums (200,000-ish) as everyone besides Sugarland without the support of a major label. Not to mention they just made the most interesting music.

Ben:  I’m supporting the Civil Wars on principle, but it’s a no-brainer that Sugarland’s hot streak is not over yet.

Leeann: I love The Civil Wars. The end.

Jonathan:  Yet more evidence that this category should be merged with Vocal Group of the Year to cut the deadweight. Though the Civil Wars getting in instead of the JaneDear Girls is a nice testament to the fact that the CMAs, every so often, can exercise good taste and discretion.

Kevin:  Sugarland’s album was atrocious.  The Civil Wars are in the running for my favorite set of the year.  Easy call for me.

Tara: Can Sugarland hurry up and release a new, redeeming album, please?

Vocal Group of the Year

Should Win:

  • The Band Perry
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town
  • Rascal Flatts
  • Zac Brown Band – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara

Will Win:

  • The Band Perry
  • Lady Antebellum – Tara
  • Little Big Town
  • Rascal Flatts
  • Zac Brown Band – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin

Dan:  Lady A were between albums. Some variety this year, please.

Ben:  It’ hard to bet against Lady Antebellum, but the Zac Brown band gave us a strong album and two of the year’s most memorable hit singles (“As She’s Walking Away” and “Colder Weather”), and I predict that they will be rewarded justly.

Leeann: Zac Brown Band has a good chance with the best music in the category, but Lady A just might not be out yet.

Jonathan:  Little Big Town’s brilliant “Little White Church” should’ve put them back in the mix for good, but they really botched the single releases from their album and are right back to being also-rans. The Band Perry will settle for the “New Artist” award as a consolation prize this year, which leaves Lady A and Zac Brown Band to duke it out. In terms of the quality of their output, Zac Brown Band has Lady A dead to rights, but is that enough to stop the trio’s awards-show juggernaut? Let’s hope so.

Kevin:  Zac Brown Band is the only option both realistic and palatable.

Tara: This is the first of these categories that I feel strongly about this year. Based on the strength of You Get What You Give, Zac Brown Band deserves to nab this award, hands down. But I’ll go against my co-bloggers here and guess that Lady Antebellum still has the industry wrapped around its finger.

New Artist of the Year

Should Win:

  • The Band Perry – Ben
  • Luke Bryan
  • Eric Church – Leeann, Jonathan
  • Thompson Square
  • Chris Young – Dan, Kevin, Tara

Will Win:

  • The Band Perry – Ben, Jonathan, Tara
  • Luke Bryan
  • Eric Church – Dan, Leeann, Kevin
  • Thompson Square
  • Chris Young

Dan: Church seems the most likely to have a long, interesting career and probably deserves the win. I just don’t want to encourage “Homeboy,” I guess.

Ben:  Thompson Square and The Band Perry are the only two nominees whom I would still consider “new” artists, and I think The Band Perry beats Thompson Square any day.  Bryan, however, did reach a new level of stardom over the past year, so he stands a good chance at wining nonetheless.

Leeann: While it’s strange that with three albums Church is still in the New Artist category, it’s probably that same reason that he should win the award, not to mention that he had the strongest album of the nominees in the past year.

Jonathan:  Young’s the best singer in the field, but his material is still too inconsistent in quality for me to get on board with him. Church, on the other hand, finally made good on his early promise and his considerable hype with Chief and would be a deserving winner, as would the uneven but still pretty good The Band Perry. As the only nominee with any other nominations, they have to be considered the slight favorites over Crest WhiteStrips.

Kevin:  I think Church’s big breakthrough happened close enough to the voting window to give him a slight edge.  I’d like to see Chris Young get the boost from a win.

Tara: Of all the nominees, I’m the most excited for Chris Young’s future in country music – his vocal talent is tremendous, and even though it falls right outside of the eligibility period, Neon is one of my favorite releases of this year. Based on their other major nominations, though, I think The Band Perry will take this.

Album of the Year

Should Win:

  • Blake Shelton, All About Tonight
  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party
  • Taylor Swift, Speak Now – Ben, Kevin
  • Brad Paisley, This Is Country Music
  • Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give – Dan, Leeann, Jonathan, Tara

Will Win:

  • Blake Shelton, All About Tonight
  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party – Dan, Leeann, Jonathan, Tara
  • Taylor Swift, Speak Now – Ben, Kevin
  • Brad Paisley, This Is Country Music
  • Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give

Dan: Here’s a logical place to acknowledge Aldean, though I hope voters think twice about it.

Ben:  In my book, Swift and the Zac Brown Band are the only truly worthy winners (and I’m still scratching my head over why a Blake Shelton “Six Pak” was even nominated in the first place).  To me, the most intriguing thing about Swift is that she really does seem to get a little better and a little deeper with each album.  Speak Now is her crowning achievement to date, and in my opinion, the best album on this ballot.

Leeann: It hurts my heart to think it, but Jason Aldean’s big year will likely earn him the award for best album, even though numbers isn’t how such an award should be selected.

Jonathan:  Speak Now is Swift’s strongest album, but, “Mean” notwithstanding, it’s also her most unabashedly pop album. And song-for-song, I still think You Get What You Give is slightly better. But Aldean has been a steady seller, and he’s big enough that he has to win one of the major awards, and this one’s his best bet.

Kevin:  “All songs composed by Taylor Swift” impressed the heck out of me, not the least of which because the songs were far better than her earlier work.  Zac Brown Band’s a close second for me.

Tara: Speak Now is solid, but You Get What You Give is the better example of how to move this genre forward, with its delicious yet reverent mishmash of influences. But I think this is where the voters will recognize the often overlooked commercial success of Jason Aldean.

Single of the Year

Should Win:

  • Sara Evans, “A Little Bit Stronger”
  • Zac Brown Band, “Colder Weather”- Leeann, Tara
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
  • The Band Perry, “If I Die Young” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin

Will Win:

  • Sara Evans, “A Little Bit Stronger”
  • Zac Brown Band, “Colder Weather”
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Jonathan, Tara
  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee” – Kevin
  • The Band Perry, “If I Die Young” – Dan, Ben, Leeann

Dan: It’d be heartening to see The Band Perry’s risky, rootsy release get its due. Plus: the single alone is 3x Platinum, better than any of its competitors can claim.

Ben:  “Colder Weather” and “If I Die Young” are the two strongest competitors, but for me, a cool folksy arrangement puts the latter over the edge.

Leeann: This is tough. I can actually see any of these singles winning, but I have a good feeling about “If I Die Young”, though I’d love to see “Colder Weather” prove me wrong.

Jonathan:  This one’s actually a tough call, since all five of the singles are big radio hits and everyone here has multiple nominations. “If I Die Young” is the best-produced single of the lot, but I’m predicting that Kelly Clarkson’s endless likability gives the edge to her duet with Aldean.

Kevin:  Love the Band Perry record most, followed by Sara Evans.  But this is the CMA awards, and Shelton managed to be both completely vanilla and namedrop Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn.

Tara: If I better understood the story in “If I Die Young,” I might be able to get behind it, but I think “Colder Weather” is the more memorable single. It’s my favorite kind of country ballad – killer vocals, gripping melody and palpable emotion. I see the fiery Aldean / Clarkson collaboration taking this one, though. (By the way, dude, “Honey Bee” – really CMA?)

Song of the Year

Should Win:

  • “Colder Weather” – Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, Levi Lowrey & Coy Bowles
  • “Dirt Road Anthem” – Brantley Gilbert & Colt Ford
  • “If I Die Young” – Kimberly Perry – Dan, Tara
  • “Mean” – Taylor Swift – Jonathan, Kevin
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter – Ben, Leeann

Will Win:

  • “Colder Weather” – Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, Levi Lowrey & Coy Bowles
  • “Dirt Road Anthem” – Brantley Gilbert & Colt Ford
  • “If I Die Young” – Kimberly Perry – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara
  • “Mean” – Taylor Swift – Kevin
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter – Leann

Dan:  “If I Die Young” is a flawed composition, but it’s still the most striking and strange one here, and that’s worth something.

Ben:  I never though I’d see a CMA Song of the Year field in which Matraca Berg and Deana Carter would compete against Colt Ford and Brantley Gilbert.  I would so love to see Berg and Carter win the award.  I might tend to be slightly biased when it comes to Matraca Berg, but I think “Tequila” is a fine composition on its own merits, and a worthy winner indeed.  Still, my gut predicion is that Perry will grab the trophy instead.

Leeann: “Mean” is probably my favorite song in terms of production and melody, but “You and Tequila” is the best song of the nominees.

Jonathan:  Berg is a treasure and I like Carter well enough, so it’s nice to see their names on the ballot again, but “You and Tequila” isn’t either of their best compositions. Here’s the thing about “Mean”: What doesn’t work about the song has everything to do with the fact that it shows the extent to which Swift still hasn’t fully figured out her artistic persona. But in terms of melody and overall construction as a stand-alone song? It’s the class of the field. As Dan said, “If I Die Young” is flawed, but it also has a lot going for it and will be a fine, worthy winner when it inevitably takes this.

Kevin: I love “You and Tequila”, but it’s an old song.  I’m glad Chesney rediscovered it, but I can’t see it as this year’s Song of the Year.  I think “Mean” is the best of the bunch, with the music as clever as the lyrics.

Tara: I’m with Jonathan and Leann re: “Mean” in that I agree its melody and overall construction are terrific; unfortunately its flaw –the bridge, which undermines the premise of the song– is too big for me to overlook. And as much as I love it, I don’t feel right backing “Colder Weather,” either, as it’s really Brown’s vocal performance that elevates the composition to a memorable song. So I’ll go with the quirky and unique “If I Die Young” and guess the voters will, too.

Musical Event of the Year

Should Win:

  • “As She’s Walking Away” – Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • “Coal Miner’s Daughter” – Loretta Lynn, Sheryl Crow & Miranda Lambert
  • “Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson
  • “Old Alabama” – Brad Paisley with Alabama
  • “You and Tequila” – Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter

Will Win:

  • “As She’s Walking Away” – Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson – Kevin, Tara
  • “Coal Miner’s Daughter” – Loretta Lynn, Sheryl Crow & Miranda Lambert
  • “Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan
  • “Old Alabama” – Brad Paisley with Alabama
  • “You and Tequila” – Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter

Dan:  The Single nod for Jason and Kelly suggests they have the edge here. But my heart echoes a resounding “Go on, son.”

Ben:  “As She’s Walking Away” is just so effortlessly charming that it would easily be my first pick, but the cross-genre appeal – and bonus Clarkson star power – of “Don’t You Wanna Stay” make it the most likely winner.  The fact that “Don’t You Wanna Stay” is also nominated for Single (which “As She’s Walking Away” sadly isn’t) suggests a likely victory in this category.

Leeann: How can I not pull for the Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson when I have a chance? I’m pretty confident that the drama, cross genre appeal, and, yup, the drama again, make “Don’t You Want to Stay” the sure bet though.

Jonathan:  “As She’s Walking Away” is one of the purest and truest duets in years, and it could pull some votes from the more traditionalist voters, but the Aldean and Clarkson single just has too much firepower to lose here.

Kevin:  If this doesn’t go to Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson, then I no longer understand how CMA voters think.

Tara: No question here, “As She’s Walking Away” is head and shoulders above the rest of the collaborations in this category, one of the most quietly charming singles we’ve heard on country radio in quite some time. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that voters will have trouble ignoring the warm fuzzies they get when Jackson starts singing.

Music Video of the Year

Should Win:

  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
  • The Band Perry, “If I Die Young” – Dan
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean” – Ben, Kevin, Tara
  • Brad Paisley featuring Alabama, “Old Alabama”
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”

Will Win:

  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee” – Ben
  • The Band Perry, “If I Die Young”
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean”
  • Brad Paisley featuring Alabama, “Old Alabama” – Dan, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”

Dan: It’s my least favorite Paisley video ever, though.

Ben:  Swift’s “Mean” is my personal favorite among these nominees, but I’m expecting that voters will show some Shelton love instead.

Jonathan:  Paisley has to win something, right? And this also gives the voters a chance to honor some beloved genre vets.

Kevin: I think the video splicing tricks will give Paisley and Alabama an additional edge.  Of the five clips, “Mean” is the one I like the most.

Tara: I love the whimsical video for “Mean” but think (and actually kind of hope) the voters will use this category to award the show co-host and his buddies.

Musician of the Year

Should Win:

  • Paul Franklin (steel guitar) – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Dann Huff (guitar)
  • Brent Mason (guitar)
  • Mac McAnally (guitar)
  • Randy Scruggs (guitar)

Will Win:

  • Paul Franklin (steel guitar) – Leeann, Jonathan
  • Dann Huff (guitar)
  • Brent Mason (guitar)
  • Mac McAnally (guitar) – Dan, Ben, Kevin, Tara
  • Randy Scruggs (guitar)

Dan: Default underdog support.

Ben:  I would love to see this go to the steel guitar man (and preferably not to Dann Huff), but Mac McAnally tends to be the favorite here.

Leeann: I want the steel guitar to represent this year. So, I’ll will it to happen.

Jonathan:  Franklin’s the only nominee who hasn’t won previously, and being regarded as long overdue eventually helped McAnally score his first win, leading to his current three-year hot streak.

Kevin:  I’ll be rooting for Paul Franklin until he finally wins, but I won’t believe that he’ll win until he finally does.

Tara: What Ben and Kevin said.


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Single Review: Rascal Flatts featuring Natasha Bedingfield, “Easy”

You can go ahead and shoot me if you want to, but I actually kind of like this one.

For once, I don’t mind that the Flatts are overdramatizing things the way they always do (nor the fact that there’s absolutely nothing country-sounding about it), since it seems to be more or less in character with the song.  The lyrics are simple, but effective at telling the story of two ex-lovers who are in denial of the strong feelings they still harbor for one another.  Nathasha Bedingfield’s presence turns out to be a worthwhile addition to the song, giving the story an extra layer.  We find out that, as this brokenhearted man is trying desperately to conceal his true feelings from his former flame, she is likewise trying to conceal similar feelings from him.  The British Adult Contemporary star has a unique voice, and she adds a special touch to the song that makes it more interesting.

As the song nears its end, things really do get over-the-top, right down to the signature overdramatic guitar solo (After all, this is still a Rascal Flatts song).  But it mercifully doesn’t approach the sheer self-indulgent mediocrity of past artistic flops like “Here Comes Goodbye.”

A little restraint could have improved it.  But overall I like this Rascal Flatts power ballad about as much as I could possibly like a Rascal Flatts power ballad.  Anyway… into the guilty pleasure playlist it goes.

Written by Katrina Elam and Mike Mobley

Grade:  B

Listen: Easy

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The 30 Day Song Challenge: Day 18

Today’s category is…

A Song You Love By an Artist You Don’t.

Here are the staff picks:

Dan Milliken: “Ticks” – Brad Paisley

He was one of the first country artists I got into, but I’ve developed a sourness for Paisley over the years. With each successive album, his songwriting voice has tended to sound a little more self-impressed and a little less self-aware. “Ticks” is a nice exception to my ears, though. For once, Paisley seems to get that he’s playing the machismo creep, so a listener can take perverse pleasure in listening to him be creepy rather than balk at the fact that they’re expected to sympathize with him. It helps that it’s one of his cooler-sounding singles, too.

Tara Seetharam: “I Never Told You” – Colbie Caillat

This song is a perfect match for the typically annoying (and off key) vulnerable quality to her voice. And we all know I’m a sucker for a well-executed, wistful love song.

Kevin Coyne: “My Life” – Billy Joel

Maybe it’s because the Garth Brooks songs that annoy me the most are the ones where he tries to sing like Joel, or maybe it’s just that too many of his hits made the family mix tapes that made car rides a living hell.  Either way, the man’s music has not worn well on my ears over the years. I love “My Life,’ though. It’s a philosophy I can really get behind, and it has that perfect balance of emotional detachment and simmering contempt.

Leeann Ward: “What Hurts the Most” – Rascal Flatts

There are exactly five songs that I enjoy by Rascal Flatts. Yes, “God Bless the Broken Road” is one of them, but “What Hurts the Most”, in all its sappy glory, is my favorite of them.

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ACM Live Blog 2011

Hello.

This is going to be a really important show, you guys.

WINNERS

Entertainer of the Year: Taylor Swift

Top Female Vocalist: Miranda Lambert

Top Male Vocalist: Brad Paisley

Album of the Year: Lady Antebellum, Need You Now

Song of the Year: “The House That Built Me”

Single of the Year: “The House That Built Me”

Top Vocal Duo: Sugarland

Top Vocal Group: Lady Antebellum

Top New Artist: The Band Perry

Top Till You Drop:

Vocal Event of the Year: Zac Brown Band & Alan Jackson, “As She’s Walking Away”

Music Video of the Year: Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me”

– – –

10:02 Well, all right, that was fun enough. Kinda. Thanks for playing along, y’all, and have a good night!

9:58 A shocking upset! As shocking as, like, one of those chewy Sweet Tarts.

Entertainer of the Year: Taylor Swift

9:56 Hey, how about next year we get James Taylor to come back and sing with the Dixie Chicks again? Yes or yes?

9:52 They segue into “Sweet Baby James.” At least this pairing makes musical sense.

9:48 Leeann: Zac Brown and James Taylor, Carrie Underwood and Steven Tyler, Jennifer Nettles and Rihanna? Is CMT testing for upcoming Crossroads episodes?

9:45 Was having some trouble with the site for a few minutes there. Now we’re up to Zac Brown Band doing a very cool “Colder Weather” with James Taylor.

9:41 Amazing how only a year and a half ago the idea of Miranda winning one of the really competitive awards still seemed like a pipe dream.

Top Female Vocalist: Miranda Lambert

9:36 “Love Gets a Hold of You” or something. It sounds okay – almost in the same you’re-gonna-miss-me-boy! vein as “Turn on the Radio,” though. I think we’re all ready for some more mature Reba now. Take a lesson from Martina.

9:34 Reba’s out to sing something or other. I just saw today that “If I Were a Boy” got yanked as a single; this must be the new one?

9:27 Darius Rucker singing “Music from the Heart” with a choir of various ages and developmental disabilities. Very passionate, touching performance.

9:25 Chris Young’s trying out the hatless thing.

9:25 Oh, for real? At least he acknowledged he has too many now.

Top Male Vocalist: Brad Paisley

9:22 I don’t know how I’m still awake through all this. I shouldn’t be saying such things at 9:23.

9:17 Leeann: Martina is worming her way back into my heart again. I’m a soft touch.

9:17 …Who just tweeted, “Holy crap, I’m singing.” Perfect.

9:14 Awesome. It does. This reminds me of Jeannie C. Riley, the spunky honesty of it. And I like to fantasize that she got some inspiration for that opening “honestly, I think I need a drink” line from Drunken Martina.

9:13 Martina’s coming out with “Teenage Daughters.” I really hope this translates well to stage.

Top Vocal Duo: Sugarland

9:10 Kevin: Naomi Judd: The answer to the age-old question, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”

9:09 Leeann: Ronnie Dunn sounds so much like Brooks & Dunn. Go figure.

9:07 He looks and sounds like musical Jesus. I mean that in a complimentary way!

9:03 Ronnie Dunn’s coming up with “Bleed Red.” Excited for that, kinda. I think C.M. Wilcox is right and that it’ll work well as an award show performance even if the single itself is a little sleepy (to some of us).

8:56 Leeann: Good. Have Kristian introduce Nettles/Rihanna to show how secure he is about being put on the sideline all the time. We’re convinced.

8:55 True fact: The banner at the top of this post will light up and spin all through this Rihanna-Jennifer Nettles performance. Watch closely!

8:53 She interjects a bit of some song I should probably recognize but don’t, and then “I’ll Fly Away.” And she sounds real good.

8:53 I bet there are some Christian folks out there from Miranda’s life who are like, “We did not say that!”

8:52 A Miranda performance is usually my favorite part of an awards night. But it’s “Heart Like Mine.”

8:44 Eh. Let’s not talk about that. Let’s talk about how awesome that live blog over at The 9513 is!

Top Vocal Group: Lady Antebellum

8:41 Or, as our pal Corey Parkman of Farce the Music just put it on Twitter, “I wonder what Sara Evans would sound like if she ever got over that sinus infection.”

8:38 The return of Sara Evans to the ACMs. Last performance I remember from her here was that severely pitch-challenged one of “Coalmine” the night she won Top Female years ago. She sounds better here, but still not up to many of her recorded performances.

8:35 I mean, seriously, y’all. “Need You Now” is the only reason Need You Now has sold like it has, and the album selling like it has is the only reason it’s getting this recognition. “Need You Now” won Song and Single of the Year at last year’s ACMs; couldn’t that have been enough?

8:31 IEIOF432IfffkDdk&*$#vdsadvfdjfpvfs >:(

Album of the Year: Lady Antebellum, Need You Now

8:28 Well, don’t think I was missing much. Such a shame – he truly would be one of the best male vocalists in the game if he had better taste.

8:25 We get a Blake Shelton performance. Don’t recognize the song.

Single of the Year: “The House That Built Me”

8:14 Jason Aldean doing the Colt Ford country-rap “Dirt Road Anthem” and it’s every bit as cool you would imagine. (That is, decidedly un-.)

8:09 Apparently their dad’s name is Steve Perry. I snickered harder than I should have.

Best New Artist: The Band Perry

8:07 Kevin: And my favorite of the 57 performances so far is…Taylor Swift. No one can ever accuse me of not having an open mind.

8:05 Kimberly Perry delivers the “well” in “If I Die Young” with way too much spunk. “Well! I’ve had just enough time. So if I do die – y’know, whatever!”

8:03 Whoops, apparently it’s a guitjo/ganjo. Whatever, it’s not like I’m a writer of music-related opinion articles or something!

8:00 Taylor Swift singing “Mean” and strumming the banjo, which is not how I’ve known anyone to play the banjo. Pretty cool scene, though – they’re in front of an old-timey house and the band’s all decked out in their Depression-era best.

7:55 Kevin: Not naming the songwriters for Song of the Year is an absolute disgrace.

[They announced it as “Miranda Lambert, ‘The House That Built Me,'” though she’s not the one who wrote it.]

Song of the Year: “The House That Built Me”

7:53 Finally, we get one: Song of the Year.

7:50 Eric Church doing “Smoke a Little Smoke,” the one single of his I really dig, with verve. BUT THERE STILL HASN’T BEEN A SINGLE AWARD.

7:45 Back from commercial, Keith Urban performing his newest hit, “Without You (Nicole Kidman)(Pt. 3)(Ballad Version).”

7:42 Leeann: Seriously? Still no award yet? What are we watching?

7:38 Dierks Bentley running laps around the arena to “Am I the Only One,” determined to make us like the unlikable.

7:36 Kevin: That’s what I wanted that song to sound like on the album.

7:35 I’ll say this: JNett still has the best stage charisma of any mainstream country star who isn’t Keith Urban.

7:32 Leeann: Half hour in and still no award yet at this…uh…awards show.

7:32 Sugarland’s here, Jennifer apparently with hair extensions, and they’re doing “Tonight.” Figured this would probably be the next single. Like Kevin, I’d like the recorded version if not for the head-cold-ish performance.

7:30 Well, that was fun. Good thing I gave up on the term “country music” meaning anything a few weeks ago!

7:27 Kevin: We’re officially down the rabbit hole.

7:27 They segue into “Walk This Way.”

7:26 Steven Tyler is really good at screaming awesomely and only ok at remembering the words to Carrie Underwood songs.

7:24 Two Soul Surfer ladies come out to introduce Carrie, who’s doing “Undo It.” WITH STEVEN TYLER! OK, I like this now.

7:20 Apparently Dr. Pepper’s current slogan is “There’s nothing like a Dr. Pepper.” Uhhhh.

7:17 Pleasant enough song (“Somewhere Else”), and he’s got that sweet Toby growl going.

7:16 Leeann: It’s nice to like Toby Keith music these days.

7:14 “ARE THEY READY?! DOES ZAC BROWN ENJOY THE FEEL OF HIS ASS IN THE SAND?!” Best Blake line of the night so far.

7:13 The celebrity cheap shots are coming hard and fast, though.

7:10 We are promised no Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan jokes. God? Is that you?!?

7:07 Celine Dion’s here now, and she’s VERY VERY EXCITED! I honestly can’t think of a better Vegas gate-keepeer, though.

7:07 Kevin: Since when did Alabama become a trio? What a poorly cropped picture, lawsuit or not.

7:06 It would be great if, instead of writing songs about how great the classic acts were, today’s artists just figured out how to measure up.

7:04 Leeann: Good. We get this disappointing Paisley  song out of the way now.

7:04 “Old Alabama” now.

7:02 Cute-ish opening skit with Blake Shelton “rehearsing for his wedding night” by serenading a blond-wigged Reba with “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking.”

6:52 Leeann: John Rich is so much more tolerable when he’s with Big Kenny.

6:38 The JaneDear Girls just appeared onscreen. When are they un-appearing, I wonder?

6:33 Wynonna and Naomi Judd chilling with Suzanne Alexander now. Colorically speaking, Wynonna has become a human sunset.

6:31 Chris Young is now talking to Storme which means his voice is audible – yay!

6:26 On some red carpet somewhere, GAC’s Storme Warren just presented to Vocal Event award, inevitably, to “As She’s Walking Away.”

6:15 Dierks Bentley will be playing “Am I the Only One” tonight. Have fun, no one!

6:04 Super-jealous of The 9513’s sweet new live blog layout. Also: the smartness of their live-bloggers. Also: the fact that Brady and Brody Vercher are named thusly.

5:59 Red carpet time, woo!! I bet everybody’s totally wearing clothes this year.

[Dan from here on out, unless otherwise noted.]

5:21 I…….this post……AM BORN

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Crunching the Numbers: January 2011

Feel that chill in the air?  It’s not just climate change, friends.  The music industry is suffering through historic lows in record sales, the worst since SoundScan started tallying them in 1991.

How are country artists faring?  Let’s take a look at cumulative sales for current albums. Sales are rounded to the nearest hundred.

Top Selling Current Country Albums

  1. Taylor Swift, Fearless: 6,233,900
  2. Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift: 4,955,000
  3. Lady Antebellum, Need You Now: 3,138,700
  4. Taylor Swift, Speak Now: 3,078,600
  5. Zac Brown Band, The Foundation: 2,489,200
  6. Carrie Underwood, Play On: 1,937,041
  7. Lady Antebellum, Lady Antebellum: 1,835,800
  8. Jason Aldean, Wide Open: 1,364,700
  9. Miranda Lambert, Revolution: 1,149,000
  10. Rascal Flatts, Greatest Hits Volume 1: 994,600
  11. Sugarland, The Incredible Machine: 815,200
  12. Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party:  766,300
  13. Tim McGraw, Southern Voice: 749,200
  14. George Strait, Twang: 670,200
  15. Kenny Chesney, Hemingway’s Whiskey: 655,200
  16. Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give: 636,000
  17. Rascal Flatts, Nothing Like This: 585,800
  18. Luke Bryan, Doin’ My Thing: 509,200
  19. Keith Urban, Get Closer: 508,200
  20. Brooks & Dunn, #1’s…and Then Some: 479,700
  21. Toby Keith, American Ride: 432,100
  22. Chris Young, The Man I Want to Be: 408,000
  23. Eric Church, Carolina: 380,600
  24. Darius Rucker, Charleston, SC 1966: 376,700
  25. The Band Perry, The Band Perry: 364,000
  26. Josh Turner, Haywire: 361,800
  27. Justin Moore, Justin Moore: 325,600
  28. Easton Corbin, Easton Corbin: 314,000
  29. Toby Keith, Bullets in the Gun: 279,400
  30. Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song: 256,300
  31. Gary Allan, Get Off on the Pain: 238,000
  32. Reba McEntire, All the Women I Am: 224,800
  33. Jerron Niemann, Judge Jerron & The Hung Jury: 222,700
  34. Billy Currington, Enjoy Yourself: 222,000
  35. Tim McGraw, Number One Hits: 220,500
  36. Dierks Bentley, Up on the Ridge: 204,900
  37. Zac Brown Band, Pass the Jar: 202,100
  38. Trace Adkins, Cowboy’s Back in Town: 194,200
  39. Johnny Cash, American VI: Ain’t No Grave: 190,100
  40. Brad Paisley, Hits Alive: 189,200
  41. Alan Jackson, 34 Number Ones: 181,000
  42. Blake Shelton, All About Tonight: 160,700
  43. Little Big Town, The Reason Why: 158,300
  44. Blake Shelton, Loaded: The Best of Blake Shelton : 142,300
  45. Jaron and the Long Road to Love, Getting Dressed in the Dark: 119,700
  46. Josh Thompson, Way Out Here: 107,000
  47. Joe Nichols, Old Things New: 100,700
  48. Brantley Gilbert, Halfway to Heaven: 81,400
  49. Lee Brice, Love Like Crazy: 81,200
  50. Steel Magnolia, Steel Magnolia: 41,000
  51. Joey + Rory, Album Number Two: 34,100
  52. Randy Houser, They Call Me Cadillac: 30,900

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100 Greatest Men: #99. Rascal Flatts

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

In the modern era of country music, you have to move a lot of units to be considered a legitimate superstar.  The first act to do so on a regular basis was Alabama, who had eight consecutive multi-platinum albums in a row in the first half of the eighties.

Since then, there have been a multitude of country artists who’ve accomplished the same feat, but despite the fact that it was a band that broke down the barrier, only one male band since Alabama has achieved similar success: Rascal Flatts.

Family connections helped this power trio get their start.  Lead singer Gary LeVox and his cousin, Jay DeMarcus, each had a desire to be country musicians, but it was DeMarcus who went to Nashville first.  After a stint in Christian band East Meets West, DeMarcus convinced LeVox to join him in Nashville.

DeMarcus joined Chely Wright’s band, which is where he met the final trio member, JoeDon Rooney.  By that time, DeMarcus and LeVox were doing regular gigs at Printer’s Alley in downtown Nashville. One night, their guitarist didn’t show, so DeMarcus invited Rooney to perform with them.   They were an instant hit, and when they couldn’t come up with a band name, an audience member suggested Rascal Flatts.

The band signed with Lyric Street in late 1999.  The fledgling label had launched with projects by Lari White and SHeDaisy, but soon Rascal Flatts would become their flagship act.  Success was immediate, with radio embracing all four singles from their self-titled debut album.  A Nashville disc jockey was responsible for the release of “I’m Movin’ On” as the fourth single, giving it heavy play as a n album cut.  It became their first huge hit, winning Song of the Year honors at the ACM Awards and powering their debut set to double-platinum status.

Over the next few years, they became a core act at country radio, scoring eleven #1 hits and selling nearly twenty million albums.  Signature records released during this time include “Bless the Broken Road” and “What Hurts the Most.”  Interestingly, both of those songs had been recorded by other artists, but adding their distinctive sound and trademark harmonies made these songs huge hits on both the country and pop charts.

As their career peaked in the mid-2000s, they were regularly nominated for Entertainer of the Year, while sweeping the CMA and ACM Vocal Group category for several years on end.  They also became a powerful force on the road, ranking among the top-grossing acts of all genres.

Like many of their contemporaries, the pace of their record sales began to slow down, but even today, they remain a strong presence at both radio and retail. After switching from Lyric Street to Big Machine, the band received plaudits for their newest music, with critics noting a return to the more country arrangements of their earlier work and a move away from the arena pop sound that had become more prevalent.

Essential Singles:

  • I’m Movin’ On, 2001
  • Bless the Broken Road, 2004
  • Fast Cars and Freedom, 2005
  • Life is a Highway, 2006
  • What Hurts the Most, 2006
  • My Wish, 2006

Essential Albums:

  • Feels Like Today, 2004
  • Greatest Hits Volume 1, 2008

Next: #98. Lee Greenwood

Previous: #100. Eck Robertson

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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