Saturday, August 31st, 2013
Best known as the former frontman of The SteelDrivers and a prolific songwriter, Chris Stapleton is carving out an impressive niche on country radio, far from the band’s bluegrass sound. His first single blends blues and soul, nodding to the record era with Tony Brown’s subdued, crackling production.
Songs about songs are common these days, but this one twists the formula. While music serves as catharsis for both characters, it mostly helps materialize Stapleton’s desperation over that painful distance – figuratively and literally – between him and the emotions of someone who’s no longer his. It’s a clever way to convey heartbreak, and an impassioned one in his hands. With his voice alone, he spins the bridge’s simple question of whether his ex is on an outbound plane or a sunny interstate into striking anguish.
That’s Stapleton’s real offering to country radio: a reminder that the power of a vocal performance can’t be underestimated, even in a genre whose heart and soul is so closely tied to narrative. Hum the base melody of “What Are You Listening To?” and it’s as mild as a children’s lullaby. Hear it with Stapleton’s embellishments, and it’s as crushing as his pain – dipping and breaking and pulling and surging until you’re right there inside his circling thoughts.
Stapleton isn’t the first to bring vocal heft to modern country radio – see: Zac Brown, Chris Young and Randy Houser - but his attempt feels more honest and less tainted by the parameters of his audience, especially in the acoustic performance below. In a year lacking smart, thoughtful releases by male artists, that authenticity makes “What Are You Listening To?” all the more remarkable.
Written by Lee Thomas Miller and Chris Stapleton
Listen: What Are You Listening To?
Sunday, July 18th, 2010
I’ve written it before, but full disclosure requires me to reiterate my biased stance toward Joey+Rory. Their debut album with Sugar Hill Records was organic and delightful. They were my first and only (so far) interview for Country Universe.
Anyone who is aware of the down-to-earth couple can instinctively assume that they were genuine and gracious and made the experience one of the highlights of my Country Universe tenure. Therefore, I will not feign detachment regarding the trajectory of their career. I simply want them to succeed and I make no apology for my steadfast position on the matter.
With that said, Joey+Rory’s new single, “This Song’s for You” oozes with sincerity. Joey and Rory trade stanzas, which is a change from the first project. Additionally, Zac Brown is featured on the bridge. The song covers a lot of ground, but it pays tribute to just about all of the various walks of life that likely attend their shows while not shying away from making succinct social statements: “If it’s takin’ all you’ve got these days just to make ends meet / And you’d like to give a piece of your mind to those fat cats on Wall Street, this song’s for you…If you wish we didn’t have to go and send our boys to war / But you still think this country of ours is still worth dyin’ for, this song’s for you.”
The reality is, however, that a song like this, one that serves the purpose of pleasing a crowd of diverse people in just a few stanzas, is a touchy balance to strike. It doesn’t always work, especially when it’s perceived as pandering instead of authenticity. Of course, perceived authenticity is a matter of subjectivity. Perhaps it’s my bias, perhaps it’s tangible sincerity, but it seems that Joey+Rory, with a close call, somehow strikes just the magic balance.
Furthermore, as is blessedly the case with all Joey+Rory music, the production is both modern and tasteful, devoid of overblown electric guitar solos. Heck, within the admittedly contemporary production (which we didn’t hear as much on their debut album), we can still hear fiddle, mandolin, and (gasp!) steel guitar, which is something they speak to in the final verse: “Now, if you love country music as real as it comes, this song’s for you / And if you came here tonight hoping you might hear you some, this song’s for you / If you paid your hard earned money to that bouncer at the door / To hear the kind of songs you don’t get to hear much anymore, this song’s for you.”
Written by Zac Brown and Rory Feek
Listen: This Song’s For You