Like “I Won’t Let Go” a few years back, “Changed” is built on a sweeping sentiment, rousing melody and very little else. That’s not an inherently bad thing; despite an ounce of detail about the confessor, “Changed” feels like a confession –it pleads and swells and submits. Add in an earnest and relatively restrained performance, and the song has legs.
Written by Gary LeVox, Wendell Mobley & Neil Thrasher
There’s something slightly jarring about the patrons’ terribly depressing hardships when the only payoff in the song is alcohol-infused hope. Maybe that’s the point, or maybe the bartender’s storyline is just a pinch undercooked. Regardless, it’s hard to knock the lovely, retro-Keith vocals and arrangement.
Tim McGraw ft. Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
In theory, this is a cool track: Swift’s removed, floating performance makes sense in a song about loneliness, and Urban’s vigorous guitar work could mirror the discord in any relationship. But the melody just isn’t as driving as the three artists think it is, and the pairing of McGraw and Swift doesn’t have much grit, sonically or romantically. There’s little to grab onto past the second or third listen.
Written by Mark Irwin, Josh Kear, & Brad and Brett Warren
story subtle dimension. Best of all is the jolt that comes from one ever-relevant line in the chorus, smartly directed at the listener: “Happiness don’t drag its feet” is as sage a piece of advice as any given by our favorite ’90s storytellers.
The single biggest obstacle between a critic and a critical review of Old Yellow Moon is the reverence demanded by a collaboration of such artistic and historical significance. So why don’t we get that part out of the way first?
Nearly forty years ago, Emmylou Harris emerged from the shadows of the late Gram Parsons to forge her own solo career. By her side was a hungry young songwriter, Rodney Crowell. Supplying her with startlingly good material, Harris assembled a series of seminal albums that balanced his bold and original songs with both country and rock classics and other songs by marginalized writers.
In the years that have since elapsed, both have become legends, with Harris maintaining commercial success in mainstream country music and Crowell scoring hits as a singer as well as a songwriter. When radio was done with both of them, they had glorious second acts in the bourgeoning Americana scene, each of them producing albums that ranked among their best personal work.
Now the two legends have come together for their first collaborative album as peers, a project that now seems inevitable but until now seemed impossible, given how far the two have wandered from their shared starting point four decades ago. It sounds like the decision they made was to go completely back to their roots, so there are no Crowell polemics or self-penned Harris tunes.
Old Yellow Moon is a simple collection of country songs, most of which have been recorded before, sometimes by Crowell or Harris themselves. It’s worth noting that it’s a country album, too. It will be labeled Americana, but only because of AARP eligibility of the performers and the self-imposed limitations of terrestrial radio. Throughout the entire project, Crowell and Harris play it straight, a choice that produces some wonderful rewards but also holds the proceedings back at some crucial moments.
Let’s talk about the good stuff first. The album opens and closes with Hank DeVito tunes, and the opening “Hanging Up My Heart” finds Harris in fine voice, backed with a country beat that harkens back to her run of hits in the early seventies. The duo turns in a solid
cover of Roger Miller’s “Invitation to the Blues”, one of several songs that even relatively recent connoisseurs of traditional country will know well.
The challenge of familiarity hangs over the proceedings, and the artists find creative ways to counter expectations in some instances. “Dreaming’ My Dreams” has been covered to death, but their decision to alternate lead vocals between the verses and chorus adds a layer of shared regret that won’t be found in any of the excellent solo recordings of it in recent years. “Bluebird Wine” opened Emmylou’s first Reprise album, but having Crowell take the lead instead, with his haggard voice weathered by time, gives a new sense of redemption to the story of a drifter taken “in off of the highway.”
“Open Season of My Heart” was a wry highlight of Tim McGraw’s Live Like You Were Dying set, but Crowell’s delivery changes it completely. Where it was once dripping with irony and self-deprecation, it is now heartbreakingly despondent. A smart lyrical change that leaves off the original final line makes the transformation work.
The album includes a cover of Matraca Berg’s “Back When We Were Beautiful”, and it’s powerful to hear the lyrics sung by an aging voice. If Harris had gone the extra step and delivered the lyrics in the first person, it would have reached transcendence. That’s a disappointing missed opportunity, as good as the finished product still is.
Actually, that description is apt for a good deal of the project, which never dips below the level of pure, polished goodness but plays it a bit too safe to elevate it into the ranks of either artist’s best work. “Black Caffeine” is a cool song, but it begs for a more emphatic production, something along the lines of “Fate’s Right Hand” or “Deeper Well.”
“Spanish Dancer” is beautiful, but Harris doesn’t compensate her increasingly bewildering poor enunciation with enough vocal flourishes to paper over how hard it is to follow the storyline because you can’t quite understand what she’s singing.
“Bull Rider” does a decent job at mimicking the rhythm of Johnny Cash’s original recording, but you can actually hear that Crowell wrote it for Cash. He did so well at writing it for the Man in Black that his own take on it sounds like a demo recording in comparison, despite some cool harmonies from Harris along the way.
But complaining about the flaws feels a bit like complaining about some smudges on the window after returning home for the first time in years. The homecoming itself is its own reward, and while Old Yellow Moon isn’t among the greatest efforts from either Harris or Crowell, it’s a wonderful listen in its own right, and a welcome return for both artists to the simple pleasures of well-written and lovingly performed good old country music.
Though Tim McGraw’s music was among the best to be heard on country radio in the late nineties and early two thousands, recent years have seen his choice of material embarking on a gradual downward slide before bottoming out entirely with last year’s Curb Records swan song Emotional Traffic. With McGraw’s recent output being what it is, and with him now being in the clutches of Scott Borchetta, it’s hard to approach Two Lanes of Freedom with high expectations.
Produced by McGraw with longtime collaborator Byron Gallimore, Two Lanes of Freedom is several degrees better than Emotional Traffic, but still heavily bogged down by cheap gimmickry, and by McGraw’s increasing tendency to over-dramatize. The opening title track, for instance, could have been enjoyable by virtue of melody and performance, but it’s all but leveled by distorted “Oh-oh-oh” chants that surface in each chorus, and that comprise a bloated, self-indulgent ending fade-out. Love-gone-wrong ballads “Friend of a Friend” and the Taylor Swift duet “Highway Don’t Care” (featuring Keith Urban on guitar) are decent songs, but both are marred by over-the-top string sections and gaudy electric guitar solos.
It should hardly come as a surprise that Two Lanes of Freedom includes serious lapses in songwriting quality, with the nadir of the project being the indefensible “Truck Yeah,” and the middling current single “One of Those Nights not faring significantly better. ”Southern Girl” is plain sloppy, recycling pandering formulas similar to those behind “Southern Voice,” and capping it off with auto-tuned chants of “Southern girl, rock my world….” Can any songwriter expect to be taken seriously when rhyming “girl” with “rock my world”?
At its best, Two Lanes of Freedom offers sporadic glimpses of the subtlety and sincerity that marked McGraw’s best work. But even when McGraw brings the goods as a vocalist, the quality of the song material often comes up frustratingly short. Though a paean to the country music industry and its history could in theory be great, it’s unfortunate that “Nashville Without You” leans on the clutch of listing classic country song titles from “Crazy” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” to “Smoky Mountain Rain” and “Fancy” – particularly considering that it’s one of the album’s most tastefully produced cuts. ”Book of John” is a bit better, telling a finely detailed story of a character poring over photo album memories of a deceased loved one, but its title hook grasps at a gratuitous connection to the Biblical gospel of John, to which the bulk of the song’s content is unrelated. The best-written song of the lot is “Number 37405,” which explores the consequences of a man’s decision to drink and drive with the gentle plainspoken tone of “Red Ragtop,” and without the preachy condescension of “Nothin’ to Die For.” The lyric smartly refrains from offering an ultimate resolution to the story, while McGraw and Gallimore mercifully dial back the production. It’s the closest representation the album has to offer of the Tim McGraw that once was.
Though Two Lanes of Freedom has its moments that are genuinely not half bad, the unevenness of the project as a whole offers little reason to believe that the Tim McGraw who gave us Everywhere, Set This Circus Down, and Live Like You Were Dying is likely to fully resurface anytime soon – and even if Tim McGraw were to make a return to form, it’s highly unlikely that Scott Borchetta would be the one to facilitate it.
Great hooks have become a dying breed in mainstream country music. It seems every other single review I write includes criticism for a hook that falls flat. Exhibit A: Tim McGraw’s new single.
“One of Those Nights” could be seen as a step up from “Truck Yeah” – though that’s probably the epitome of a hollow compliment. The production is heavy, and hardly country at all, but it generally avoids becoming a distraction until the overwrought finish. (A gospel choir? Really?) The lyrics aren’t particularly original – a backwoods love story the likes of which we’ve heard a few times before - but they’re laced with a few details that lend a degree of interest to the story.
Yet the one thing about the song that I just can’t get over is the way it keeps repeating the phrase “This is gonna be one of those nights” as if it’s somehow significant. It doesn’t summarize the content of the song in any meaningful way. It doesn’t convey anything deeper than what it says on the surface, and it’s not especially interesting or
clever. A better hook could have compensated to some extent for the generally uninspiring lyrical content, but the way it is, there’s precious little for the listener to grab onto.
No matter how charitable I try to be in discussing Tim McGraw’s new song, ”One of Those Nights” simply offers nothing to get excited about. I miss the days when I could get excited about Tim McGraw’s music, and I highly doubt that Scott Borchetta is going to be the one to bring those days back.
More importantly, I don’t get it and the song isn’t interesting enough to make me want to get it.
“The Cowboy in Me” might be an amoebic form of the country lifestyle anthems that have flooded the genre in the years since it was released. It’s certainly subtler and more refined than what’s come out since, and McGraw’s hit doesn’t include the head-pounding loudness that sinks so many other “country” anthems.
But it’s like they wanted to write a song about having a short temper and being restless, and they couldn’t come up with a more interesting way to do it, so they use the cowboy archetype as a shorthand reference. This despite the fact that you could replace “cowboy” with “Jersey Shore” and it would still work, so what’s so cowboy about it, anyway?
A commenter made a strong case that “Grown Men Don’t Cry” was a defining moment in the suburbanization of the genre and its growing disconnect from the life of the working poor. “The Cowboy in Me” came along well after the ampersand and the Western were dropped from Country Music, but it really does demonstrate that the genre has as much relevance to cowboys these days as a Marlboro ad.
Written by Al Anderson, Jeffrey Steele, and Craig Wiseman
This is depressing. Trucks! Two-lane roads! Country girls! Swimmin’ holes! County fairs! Grits! Gravy! Soldiers! Old Glory! “Raise your hands!” “Hell Yeah!” “Amen!” “Yee haw!” “Y’all come back again!”
“The pretty waitress calls you baby” and “fellow toppin’ off your tank knows your name” are new ones, but there’s still nothing in this song that’s interesting enough to overcome the grating, repetitive checklist structure that’s been so done to death that it’s not even funny anymore. Likewise, there’s no disguising the fact that this song amounts to nothing more than blatant, obvious pandering. Tim McGraw did this with “Southern Voice.” Justin Moore did this with “Small Town USA.” Scotty McCreery is doing this with “Water Tower Town.” And just as an aside, “Where there’s more trucks than cars” is a really stupid title hook.
I do not appreciate this, Craig Morgan. In fact, I can’t help but feel that you’re insulting my intelligence to suggest that all I want to hear from you are reminders that trucks and small towns do, in fact, exist. Besides that, you’re actually a pretty talented singer, so I’m somewhat puzzled as to why you seem so satisfied to make such a flat, one-dimensional caricature out of yourself.
Country music’s current identity crisis continues. This song is a sign that it’s not going to get better anytime soon, and it hurts my heart to realize that this song actually stands a good chance of becoming a hit.
Written by Craig Morgan, Phil O’Donnell, and Craig Wiseman
Since bringing back Recommend a Track proved so popular, I’m resurrecting another CU oldie but goodie: the iPod check.
I’ve only recently discovered the Most Played feature on iTunes, since it never had any relevance until iPods were large enough in memory to sync all of my music. So going back to early 2011, I have a lengthy list of the songs I’ve played the most.
So today’s iP0d check: List your most-played song from twenty different country artists.
You can access this info by going to your own Most Played list and adjusting the number of songs on it – I use 500 for mine – or you can just go to Music and sort by number of plays. Or you can just pick twenty artists at random and list your most played song for each. We’re easy here. (This would also work in Spotify, from what I hear.)
Here’s my top twenty:
Pam Tillis – Deep Down (89 plays)
Keith Urban – I Told You So (81)
Dixie Chicks – Long Time Gone (71)
Taylor Swift – Mean (68)
Trisha Yearwood – Where Are You Now (63)
Patty Loveless – You Can Feel Bad (59)
Emmylou Harris – Easy From Now On (55)
Carrie Underwood – Undo It (50)
Lori McKenna – Lorraine (50)
Dwight Yoakam – Ain’t That Lonely Yet (46)
Sara Evans – Rocking Horse (45)
Sawyer Brown – Cafe on the Corner (45)
Reba McEntire – The Fear of Being Alone (44)
Shania Twain – Up! (43)
Faith Hill – Stealing Kisses (41)
Alan Jackson – So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore (40)
Crystal Gayle – Why Have Your Left the One You Left Me For (39)
George Strait – Meanwhile (39)
Lee Ann Womack – I May Hate Myself in the Morning (39)
Aaron Tippin – Whole Lotta Love on the Line (38)
I’m surprised that some of my most played artists overall, like Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, and Tim McGraw, don’t have that one big song that I play excessively. Also, at least half of the songs above aren’t what I would call my favorite song by the given artist. How about you?
I will append a “-” onto the grade as a means of acknowledging the fact that the Bruce Robison original is overall superior. That said, Tim McGraw’s hit recording of “Angry All the Time” is an excellent record in its own right.
I’m sure there are relatively few artists who would have listened to Robison’s non-charting, self-written 1998 single and thought, ‘Hey, that sounds like a hit!’ But “Angry All the Time” was a classic instance of McGraw finding a hit in the most unlikely of places, and giving mass exposure to an achingly beautiful, yet underrated composition.
Though not quite a raw as Robison’s original recording, McGraw’s version is surprisingly light on bells and whistles. Beginning with the sound of hushed acoustic strumming, the arrangement picks up force as the song progresses, but the focus of attention remains the story of a marriage gradually unraveling. Varying emotions are conveyed, including frustration, desperation, and disillusionment, particularly in stinging lines such as “What I can’t live with is memories of the way you used to be.”
It all comes through in McGraw’s evocative performance, showcasing the layers of subtlety his voice had picked up in the years since his “Indian Outlaw” days, while wife Faith Hill’s plaintive background vocals add a further layer of pathos. The couple injects an angst into the lines “God, it hurts me to think of you, for the light in your eyes was gone/ Sometimes I don’t know why this old world can’t leave well enough alone” that is heartrending. It’s a top-notch performance by a pair of contemporary country music’s most vibrant talents.
In the late nineties and early 2000s, Tim McGraw was known as one of country music’s finest selectors of song material, as well as one of its finest interpreters of lyrics. Great records like this are the reason for it.
This is one of Tim McGraw’s most polarizing singles, with perhaps more falling down on the “hate it” than the “love it” side of things.
I love it. I really do. Part of that love is from a combination of the vivid imagery and McGraw’s plaintive vocal performance.
But a much bigger part comes from the second verse where the narrator dreams about his father. Their relationship is idyllic in his subconscious but was distant and cold in reality. That verse is so well-crafted, and McGraw delivers it so masterfully that it always surprises me, no matter how many times I hear it. It’s amazing to see how far he came from “Don’t Take the Girl”, where you can hear the tragedy coming from three verses away, so dripped is his voice in cloying sentimentality.
I get why some people aren’t crazy about this one. It is, after all, about a guy who cries in a supermarket parking lot, and then at a grave site, and then after tucking his little girls into bed. But I guess that instead of coming off as wimpy or sappy to me, it feels more like a guy who didn’t come from a loving home feeling the pain of the little boy and his mother, and later feeling deep appreciation for his own love being reflected in his little girl’s “I love you, Dad.”
After all , there aren’t that many folks out there who get the perfect childhood and then go on to provide it to their children. Even those who have never known a broken home have usually known a few shattered windows. “Grown Men Don’t Cry” makes its fair share of eyes roll upward, but quite a few of those eyes prove the title wrong because it hits so close to home.