When you look back at the pop country of the 2000s, Keith Urban is certainly one of the biggest names to emerge from the era and experience a lot of success. The sincerity of his voice combined with the easy-going pop country stylings in his music made him a big fan favorite amongst mainstream country fans. Personally, Urban has always been just sort of there for me. It wasn’t until his last single “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” that I formed a strong opinion on one of his songs. That single to me was nothing but a giant word vomit of clichés. The song was basically about nothing. And of course it reached the top five on the country airplay charts. I was surprised it didn’t reach #1 and the only reason it didn’t was because of the strong airplay of Kenny Chesney’s “Save It For A Rainy Day.” Urban has now released the follow-up and the second single of his upcoming eighth studio album, titled “Break On Me.”
Well I can say it’s an improvement over “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.” Then again Urban had nowhere to go but up after that song. “Break On Me” plays on the theme that is quite popular in mainstream country music and that is romantic slow jams with pop elements infused throughout. The song is about how a man offers his shoulder to his loved one and that she’s welcome to “break” on him. The lyrics, written by Ross Copperman and Jon Nite, aren’t half bad. They do a decent job of conveying emotion and giving the song somewhat of a feel. It’s a shame they really never get a fair chance to shine, as the production kills most of my interest in this song. I don’t even know how I would describe it. The electronic elements and heavy Reverb throughout the song is annoying and unnecessary. The only reason this is included is because that’s the current popular sound in the genre right now. It serves no purpose other than this. If the song sticks to a simple acoustic guitar and piano, it might actually be good. Instead it’s just another forgettable, bland romance song on country radio.
I can see what Keith Urban was going for with this song, but it misses the mark in too many areas to accomplish it. Urban has always been a pop country singer, but this is just too much pop for my taste. As I’ve seen many point out on Twitter, it’s very Ed Sheeran-esqué. Based on the sound of these first two singles from Urban’s newest album, I’m expecting him to go more pop than ever before with his music. It’s not as bad as Sam Hunt’s version of urban country, but it’s still forgettable and unimaginative nonetheless. “Break On Me” is a sleepy ballad that I’m sure many urban country fans will praise as deep and emotional, but to me it’s just a less offensive version of Luke Bryan’s “Strip It Down.”
Most country fans are pretty well aware by now that a lot of country music outside of Nashville comes from the state of Texas. These artists either get big enough to go to Nashville and sign to a major label or stick around in the scene as they make a name for themselves. Well Madelyn Victoria’s path to where she is now is a little different. She grew up in Harlingen, Texas and performed and sang ever since she was five years old. Victoria has pretty much done it all in music, from being selected to perform with the Radio Disney Superstars of Dallas to studying opera and mariachi to being a Shania Twain Sing-Off winner. Her heart though is with country music, as George Strait is one of her favorite artists. Victoria and her band have already opened for the likes of Turnpike Troubadours, Clay Walker and Zac Brown Band. And she has just recently her newest single via Star 1 Records and MTS Management, titled “He Only Loves Me on the Dance Floor.”
Right away you’ll notice the constant presence of steel guitar throughout the song. It’s very much a traditionally rooted sound. The song itself is about a woman trying to resist giving into her love for a man, but eventually taking a drink of whiskey to have the courage to do so. She kind of knows she shouldn’t give in. She can’t help it though and they dance the night away on the dance floor. The songwriting is pretty solid and makes for a solid, mid-tempo love ballad. Victoria has a really nice voice that suits the song well. It sounds very seasoned for as young as she is, although singing your whole life will tend to make you pretty good at singing so I shouldn’t be too surprised. She also avoids over singing the song, as many artists will try too hard to embellish on a song like this one.
Madelyn Victoria’s country career is only her early stages, but songs like this build a good foundation early on with fans. It firmly establishes her as a traditional country artist, which is nice to see. You can also tell she’s being herself and not trying to be someone else (you have no idea how many upcoming artists are labeled as the next <insert name here>). Victoria is well versed with the music business it seems too, so that’s another feather in her cap. “He Only Loves Me on the Dance Floor” is a solid love ballad that many traditional country fans should enjoy. Victoria is clearly a talented artist and her potential is quite high.
A couple of weeks back Grady Smith at The Guardian wrote an interesting piece that centered around mainstream country artists and how they don’t like the records they make. First off kudos to Grady for this piece, as it brings to light an interesting subject that needs to be discussed. For many years I have heard fans of mainstream country artists defend the bad music their favorite artists put out because they were forced to do it by their label. Well as I’ve learned ever since I’ve started this blog, this argument is a load of crap. And the quotes from mainstream country artists in this piece further back it up.
Joe Nichols is the main focus of the piece, who is the perfect artist when it comes to this argument. Any country fan knows that Nichols is capable of churning out great traditional country music, as early on his career he did this regularly. His deep, baritone voice is capable of belting almost any country song. Then he decided to sell out to bro country with songs like “Yeah” and “Sunny and 75.” Lately he hasn’t had quite the success. So now he’s crowing about he would just love to make a traditional country record. From Grady’s piece:
“If I could just make the record I wanted to make, I’d hire the country-est guys in Nashville. Kenny Sears, Opry members, the Time Jumpers, maybe Vince Gill to come sing. And we’d make a country record that probably wouldn’t get sold at all.” Nichols claimed that he’d love to record music with “lots of twin fiddles, steel guitars, country shuffles and western swing … But I’m not that rich.”
First off this argument from Nichols isn’t nothing new. He said something similar months ago. What makes this quote in particular more ridiculous is how far he takes it. He says that this kind of record wouldn’t “get sold at all.” Just this year there are countless examples that prove this wrong. Aaron Watson and Jason Isbell both had #1 country records making albums that are very country and have received praise from fans and critics alike. As pointed out by Saving Country Music, Sturgill Simpson’s 2014 album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music has sold over 100,000 albums. This is nothing to sneeze at, considering this beats out many B and C-list mainstream country artists’ album sales. Not to mention this led to Simpson getting a deal with Atlantic Records. So the idea that traditional country records don’t sell is absolutely false. And Nichols using the defense that he isn’t that rich is laughable too. Many notable independent country artists make a good living, so I find it hard to believe that an artist on a major label like himself is struggling for money. He’s also had five #1 country songs. Excuse me while I go play the world’s smallest fiddle for Mr. Nichols.
“It’s never strictly about music,” Owen said, “because it can’t be that way. There are too many people invested in my career.” He continued, “I’ve got management and labels, radio guys, promoters looking to do a tour. You can’t start a tour if you don’t have the right songs to support it. There’s money that’s being spent. I got guys in a crew and I feel responsible for their lifestyles, their families and their livelihood. I can’t afford to be selfish, nor do I want to be.”
Once again another pathetic excuse. So releasing terrible music is all an effort to feed all of your underlings on your team? Please. I highly doubt Owen is thinking about them as he sits in his nice house or when he’s in the studio making music. This is the equivalent of corporations using kids in ads to shield themselves from criticism. And let’s hypothetically go along with this argument for a second. This essentially means these artists don’t believe in the music they’re putting out and doing it strictly for the bottom line. That sounds less like an artist and more like a businessman to me. Why should fans care about the music if the artist doesn’t care?
Grady goes on to make a lot of great points himself and if you haven’t read the piece yet you need to do it. I just want to add a few more to them. First selling out is not guaranteed to pay off. Jake Owen’s “Real Life” didn’t get above the top 15 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart and is already recurrent. His previous single “What We Ain’t Got” actually went higher, last longer and was considered by critics to be his best single yet. It also can alienate your fan base. Ask Jerrod Niemann. While “Drink To That All Night” was his biggest hit, it only proved to be a short-term burst in stature. His follow-up single “Donkey” was a complete flop because he took things too far. It’s highly doubtful he’ll ever reach the highest of heights in country music again. Lastly, this is a slap in the face to independent artists everywhere who bust their ass and put their blood, sweat and tears into their songs. Independent country artist Chris King says it best in multiple tweets:
I don't find this sad. Quit saying you "want" to make better music. You have the money. Make better fucking music. http://t.co/MwOiVWZq2S
Bottom line: Mainstream country artists need to stop whining about wanting to make the music they want to make and just make it. Actions speak louder than words. Saying you’ll do something means nothing. You’re simply procrastinating and making an excuse. Mainstream country artists need to either put up or shut up because the talking has gone past the point of tiring. It doesn’t matter what you think, it matters what you do.
(And if Nichols wants to make that album with a lot of fiddle, he just needs to ask Dierks Bentley. Up On The Ridge, anybody?)
Upcoming/Recent Country & Americana Releases
Chris Janson will release his new album Buy Me A Boat tomorrow.
The Yawpers’ new album American Man will come out tomorrow. If you missed my review of it yesterday, click here.
Tim McGraw is releasing his new album Damn Country Music next Friday.
Josh Abbott Band will release their new album Front Row Seat next Friday.
Jeff Crosby and The Refugees will release a new album next Friday titled Waking Days.
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell are releasing a folk album on Friday called So Familiar. Yes, it’s the actor. I’m definitely reviewing this one out of sheer curiosity.
Ashley Campbell is officially sending “Remembering” to country radio for adds on November 9. If you missed my review of it, check it out here.
Brothers Osborne officially announced they will release their debut album on January 15, 2016 and it’s titled Pawn Shop. Click here for their official announcement and the album cover.
Lucinda Williams has announced she will release a new album titled The Ghosts of Highway 20 and it’ll be released on February 5, 2016 via Thirty Tigers.
Great Music Currently at Country Radio
The very best of country radio right here in a nice playlist. In order for a song to be added to the list, it must currently be in the top 60 of the Billboard Country Airplay chart, so this will be updated weekly.
Throwback Thursday Song
George Strait – “Check Yes or No” – Here’s a classic 90s song from King George himself. I grew up hearing this song all the time on the radio and grew to be one of my favorites from Strait.
Non-Country Suggestion of the Week
I’ve said before on this blog how much I respect and enjoy Adele’s music. Well after waiting much longer than many anticipated, we finally get new music from her. This is her new single “Hello,” which is a heartfelt ballad that proves she is just as great as ever. As of this writing it already has 93 million views on YouTube. Crazy! Her new album comes out on November 20 and like her previous albums she helped write every song on it. No Chris Stapleton co-writes this time though.
Tweet of the Week
There are some stars that could learn a thing or two about gracefully addressing their parents' fame from this: pic.twitter.com/1245KyHfYA
Each week I take a look the Billboard Country Airplay chart and grade the top 30 songs. The grading format I use each week is every song will receive either a +1, -1 or a 0. These will then be tallied up for an overall score, or pulse of the current top thirty country songs, with the highest possible score being a +30 and the lowest possible score being a -30. How do I determine if a song is rated a +1, -1 or 0? The rating it received on the site or myself will determine this. If it hasn’t been rated yet, then I will make the call. Songs rated between 7 and 10 receive a +1. Songs rated between 5 and 6.5 receive a 0. Songs rated 4.5 or lower receive a -1.
The goal of this exercise is to evaluate the current state of mainstream country music and determine if it’s improving or getting worse. Let’s take a look at this week’s top thirty…
One of the things I love about using the Americana label is it can encompass and mean so many things. It’s the perfect label to put on a band like The Yawpers. Here’s a group that combines the sounds of rock and roll, country, blues and even a little folk to create a unique and fun brand of music. The Yawpers are made up of Nate Cook (lead vocalist), Jesse Parmet (lead guitarist) and Noah Shomberg (drummer) and they’re based out of Denver. Upon first listen of their brand new album American Man, I was immediately hooked. It’s an album that country and rock fans can both love equally. If you love both genres, you’ll enjoy this album even more. But before you listen to it, make sure your ears are ready, as this is a loud and rowdy record.
The in your face “Doing It Right” sets the album’s tone right off the bat. The song starts off at normal volume and slowly increases as the song plays. By the end of it you’ll want to bang your head along with the beat of the music. The frenetic guitar licks are a real trademark of this song and the entire album. The album’s title track is a slowed-down ballad about what it means to be an American and what American life is like today compared to the past. It’s definitely a song that makes you think and I think everyone will take something different from it. Lead man Cook really shines vocally on this song. “Burdens” is The Yawpers take on growing up in a small town and striving to leave that town to realize your dreams. The boy in the song is 17 and already knows he needs to hit the road while he’s young, otherwise he won’t ever get out alive. This song definitely has a classic southern rock/country vibe about it that makes it easy to enjoy.
Gritty would be the best word to describe “Tied.” The theme and the instrumentation are a gritty combination of blues and punk rock that will make this song a fan favorite at concerts. The fast-paced and upbeat “Deacon Brody” follows. This is just a flat-out fun song, as the instrumentation is so weird, yet so great too. While The Yawpers may entertain me with their loud music, they impress me when they slow it down in songs like “Faith And Good Judgment.” It’s a song about finding that constant balance in life between faith and making good judgments. The production in this song is perfect, as it elevates the lyrics and conveys the right emotion in the listener.
“9 to 5” is definitely one of the highlights of American Man. The song is about convincing a drifter to take on the freedom of a 9 to 5 job, as it offers more stability. From the catchy hook to the infectious guitar licks, you’ll remember this song for a while after hearing it. Another standout on the album, “Walter,” is next. Cook’s vocals, Parmet’s guitar licks and Shomberg’s drum play are just so cohesive on this song and combine to make yet another song that is easy to enjoy. This is the kind of song you turn on and crank the volume up to 11.
The Yawpers embrace their bluegrass side on “Beale Street.” As good as they are at rocking out in their music, I would love to hear them do more bluegrass inspired music in the future. Next is “Kiss It,” which is basically just a punch to the face in the form of screaming guitars (in a good way of course). This is another one that will be an absolute thrill to hear live. “3 am” is the longest song of the album, as well as the darkest. It’s about a man dealing with inner demons and hoping for another day of sun. By the end of the song, he thinks about turning himself over to Jesus in hopes that will save him. Sonically and lyrically, it’s the most powerful song on the album. American Man closes out with “The Desert.” It just feels like an appropriate closer to the album, as you’ll know when you hear it. And of course the last you hear in the song is the banging of drums and the licks of an electric guitar.
The Yawpers’ American Man is one of those albums you just need to hear for yourself, as words don’t really do it justice. But it’s definitely the type of music where you’ll either take it or leave it. My suggestion is to take it. If you enjoy country music and rock music you especially need to hear it, as there is plenty of both throughout this album and many songs give you both. The instrumentation is practically flawless and the songwriting is sharp and on point. If you enjoy bands like Blackberry Smoke, Banditos and The Legendary Shack Shakers, you’ll enjoy The Yawpers too. This is a band that has just as much fun making the music as you will listening to it.