Album Review – Cody Johnson’s ‘Gotta Be Me’

Cody Johnson Gotta Be Me

Without a doubt one of the biggest pros of the digital era in music is it has allowed the rise and success of independent artists. In country music, Cody Johnson is perhaps one of the best examples. Hailing from the Texas country scene, Johnson has raised his profile steadily in recent years. He has major sponsors, is a fixture on the Texas charts, has great streaming numbers and sells a lot of album. This is without all of the support of a major label or country radio. With his new album Gotta Be Me, he sold 23,000 copies in its first week. To really put this into perspective: Chris Lane just hit #1 at country radio with his pop song “Fix” and only sold just over 6,000 copies of his new album in the first week. Johnson’s sales should have been great enough to land him his first #1 country album, but thanks to Blake Shelton’s 99 cents album deal on Google Play he missed out at the accomplishment (Johnson had the perfect response to this). With all of his chatter around the album, I decided to re-listen to the album after initially deciding not to review it. After more listens it grew on me and I decided to give it a proper review because at times this album can shine pretty bright.

The album’s title track kicks it off and right away you’re greeted with the warm, welcoming sounds of country music. If there’s one thing this album absolutely nails, it’s the instrumentation. This is a true country album through and through. In this song Johnson sings about how he sticks to his guns and always stays true to himself. It’s a solid song to start the album. This is followed by “Grass Stains.” It was kind of predictable where this song was going from the beginning, as it’s about a couple having sex in the grass. It’s pretty close to bro country lyrics and the very least are laundry list and predictable. This isn’t necessarily bad, but the fiddles can’t cover up unimaginative songwriting. One of the better-written songs and one of my favorites on the album is “With You I Am.” It’s a song about a guy telling his woman about how he was never the quarterback of the football team or flashy guy. He was the humble guy who stayed in the background. But now with her in his life he feels like a more confident, better person. Unlike some modern country songs about love, this one actually takes time to explain why this relationship is so meaningful.

Johnson harkens back to 90s country on “Half a Song.” I say 90s country because everything from the lyrics to the instrumentation remind me of something I would hear on the radio in that era. If country radio still actually played country music all the time, I would say this would be a hit single. It’s a love song that you can dance to, but also has heart and connects easy with the listener. “The Only One I Know (Cowboy Life)” is another song where Johnson sings about the kind of person he is and the life he leads. Now when I see most country artists with a song that is about living the cowboy life, I roll my eyes because it feels disingenuous and false. But with Johnson it doesn’t. Not only because he used to be in the rodeo and is from Texas, but also you can hear it in his voice as he sings.

The slower, pedal steel guitar-driven “Walk Away” is next. It by far digs deeper than any other song on this album, as it’s a cheating song about a guy finding out his love is cheating on him. She doesn’t know that he knows, as he finds the guy she’s cheating on him with. He buys the guy a drink and calmly explains to him that he needs to walk away from this affair because he loves her and wants to give her a second chance. It’s rare to hear this in a cheating song and see the cheated person give the cheater a second chance. It’s kind of refreshing to hear another take on a cheating song and I applaud Johnson for it. I would say this is the best song on the album. Johnson swerves back into cliché/laundry list territory on “Kiss Goodbye.” It’s another cheating song with a more modern instrumentation feel and features some spoken word from Johnson. The spoken word isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s kind of awkward and doesn’t improve the song. This song is just sort of there for me.

“Chain Drinkin’” is another song that you can tell where it’s going by the title of it. But predictable isn’t always bad. While this drinking song isn’t bursting with creativity, it’s easy to enjoy and tap your feet along with as you listen. What helps is it doesn’t take itself seriously and errs more on the light-hearted, humorous side. While ballads and cheating songs are the bedrock of country music, you need these fun songs to break it up too. Johnson relies on the old trope, “If you love something, set it free,” on “Wild as You.” Just like “Kiss Goodbye,” it’s a lightweight song and one of the more forgettable moments on this album. The same can be said of the next track, “I Know My Way Back (Clara’s Song).” Again not a bad love song, it’s just okay and not something I would go out of my way to hear. “Billy’s Brother” is about a man getting drunk in bar and a man remembering not to fight Billy. This is because of Billy’s brother, who sounds like he could kick anyone’s ass. The entire song revolves around getting drunk and the man hoping he can keep his hands off Billy. Predictably he doesn’t and I’m assuming Billy’s brother won another fight. This is the type of song I can imagine connects much better live than on an album.

After a streak of lighter songs, Johnson digs back deeper again with “Every Scar Has a Story.” He sings about all of the scars on his body, both physical and emotional, all tell a story about something that has happened in his life. This is from going headfirst off a motorcycle to getting his heart broke. Again in a more just world, this song is a hit. “I Ain’t Going Nowhere Baby” is about a man reaffirming to his love that he isn’t going anywhere and that he’ll always have a shoulder there for her to cry on. With already numerous love songs on this album and the record being 14 songs long, you kind of run out of steam by this point (more on that in a second). Gotta Be Me ends with another highlight of the album, “I Can’t Even Walk (Without You Holding My Hand).” It’s an acoustic bonus track that features both of his parents and it’s a really touching song. Normally I don’t review bonus tracks in my album reviews, but this song is so great I had to include it. It’s probably one of the coolest outros I’ve heard on an album and ends the record on a high note.

Cody Johnson’s Gotta Be Me is a solid country album. Is it one of the year’s best? No. What ultimately holds this album back is the songwriting and the album length. While there are a few moments of a good songwriting, too many times there are songs that have a been there, done that feel. In the case of a song like “Grass Stains,” it reminded me a little too much of the not so distant bro country era. At 14 songs, this album is just too long and can drag towards the end. This album would have been so much better if you cut the four worst songs. It would be an easier listen and the songwriting would be more forgivable. I will say though that this is a step up from Cowboy Like Me and I think it’s the perfect album for a mainstream country fan looking to get into Texas and/or independent country music.

Grade: 7/10

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Album Review – John Moreland’s ‘High on Tulsa Heat’

John Moreland has spent most of his life writing songs and making music. He was in a punk band for a bit, but shifted his personal musical direction once he realized he wanted to sing songs that would hit listeners right in the chest. He wants to write and sing stories that were raw, emotional, and real. 2013’s In the Throes was Moreland’s breakout album, and he follows that heartbreaking collection of songs with High on Tulsa Heat. High on Tulsa Heat is equally as eloquent and poignant as its predecessor. Moreland wrote ten deep, heartbreaking songs about life’s toughest moments. These songs aren’t light, and the mostly stripped back production aids the songs in way that’s like John Moreland inviting his listeners into his soul.

The album begins with “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars.” The song appears to deal with dissatisfaction. Searching endlessly to find life’s calling and dealing with pain that you feel when life lets you down. Moreland describes this search with intense imagery; his word choice is excellent with some wonderful rhyme schemes. “This world will have the wolves outside your door, and make you leave all that you love to fight a war and never tell you what you’re dying for.” If you, like myself, hadn’t listened to Moreland before now, this is a prime example of the type of writing he delivers across the board. The production picks up a bit on “Heart’s Too Heavy.” The drums find a nice place behind the guitars, and it sounds like a faint steel guitar in the mix. The song deals with being weary on a journey. Love is dying, dreams aren’t panning out, and there’s doubt and pain weighing you down.

The album slows down again in “Cleveland County Blues.” Here Moreland deals with the pain of being left by his love. He compares her with a tornado, and even though he’s way up in Cleveland County, he won’t soon forget her. There’s some great acoustic country instrumentation behind Moreland’s vocals. Moreland writes of a different side of love on “White Flag.” The relationship in this story is one of endless devotion, possibly to a fault. Where she is struggling to get by with life, he is there to be her white flag. He’ll give everything he has to help her make it through. For my money, “White Flag” is the best song of the album: great writing, great vocals and a perfect production behind the lyrics.

“Sad Baptist Rain” is about being drawn toward temptation. Moreland grew up in the Baptist church, and speaks of how there were times of guilt with his actions and aspirations conflicting with the Baptist ideals. There’s a nice light rock production to this song that fits nicely. “Cherokee” is said to have been written about a lucid dream. The lyrics depict a search for a long-lost figure of wisdom, maybe a deceased father. Moreland engages the listener with vivid descriptions and details that tell a story while leaving interpretation up to the listener.

“Losing Sleep Tonight” finds Moreland dealing with the aftermath of a broken heart. She has left him cold, confused and searching for answers. Moreland simply ponders if she, like him, is losing sleep tonight over the end of the relationship. The melody picks up a bit on this track with heavier drums and guitar strums behind the vocals. “American Flags in Black & White” is another great track that allows room for the listener to find their own meaning. The title alone paints a great picture in your head, and the song uses that image to pine for a time of simpler ways. Life has gotten hard, blows have been dealt, and the characters long for the days from their old black and white pictures.

John Moreland shows a different side of relationships falling apart on the next track. “You Don’t Care for Me Enough to Cry” is about a relationship that’s gone cold. His old demons have gotten the best of him and allowed it to affect their life together. And while he continues to struggle, his actions have left her so burned that she can’t feel any sympathy for his pain. When Moreland describes his desire to punch people in the chest with his songs, this one is a prime example of that. The album ends with the title track. “High on Tulsa Heat” ties the album together in a sped up, but similar melody to the opening track. The theme of searching for a place to call home add to the songs paralleled similarities. Moreland grew up in Tulsa after moving from Kentucky, so it makes sense to have these two particular home-themed songs named after that city. The song works nicely to tie the album together and drive it home.

High on Tulsa Heat is about identity. It’s an album depicting some bad situations and how we can find out who we are in light of those challenges and struggles. John Moreland’s insight on this album is not something that you find in music much anymore. The lyrics all paint vivid, wonderfully imagery, and Moreland puts himself and the listener in the center of each story in a natural way. While fans get a further look into the complex mind of John Moreland, the lyrics also leave enough room for each person to gather their own meaning from the songs. That same praise will also be the dividing line between the casual music fan and those who pine for deep songs and gut punching stories. Moreland doesn’t write for the casual fan; he writes for himself and those who are willing to tag along on his journey.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review – Will Hoge’s “Small Town Dreams”

For nearly 15 years, Will Hoge has been recording and releasing music pretty much his own way. With one poorly performed major label release and seven independent releases, Will Hoge has earned every bit of success through his own blood, sweat and tears. With a number one song from the Eli Young Band cutting “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” and a song on a Chevy campaign with “Strong”, more people have begun to take notice of Will Hoge. Recognizing this growing fanbase, Hoge teamed up with producer Marshall Altman to give this new album a more mainstream friendly pop country sound to the production. Hoge’s new album, Small Town Dreams, keeps his roots of sharp story telling with a cleaner production.

Small Town Dreams is more than just a name for the album, it’s a central theme that ties through many of the songs. On the opener, “Growing Up Around Here” Will Hoge sings about things he did while growing up: where he kissed his first girl, high school sports, drinking his first beer, etc. The song is tied together with the desire to leave town at the first chance of adult freedom, only to realize years later that the little town is home and something to be proud of. The song gets a little clichéd on the lyrical front, but the acoustic mid-tempo production adds a freshness to the song and makes it feel authentic.

Up next is “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To,” which I would argue to be a song of the year candidate. A song about a son trying to live up to his father’s hard working legacy. Hoge co-wrote this with Texas country writer Sean McConnell. The piano melody soars behind lyrics of a father doing his best to provide for his family. “You can’t make a million bucks on some damned assembly line. But you threw every dime you could into that Folgers’ coffee can after ten percent to Jesus, 25 to Uncle Sam.” The authenticity of this song lies in the fact that Hoge sings of himself as a struggling musician trying to provide for his own children. “Better Than You” isn’t your typical “you’ve left me” song. Hoge knows he’s messed up the relationship and the loneliness hurts. However, he also knows there is nothing better than her in his life, and that’s the cause of the pain. This song has a country/rock anthem beat to its melody.

“Little Bitty Dreams” is a stripped down track, and is the only Will Hoge solo writing effort on the album. The song tells a story of man and a woman who fall in love and start a family. But in sticking to the small down dreams theme, the start of this family comes at the expense of abandoning large dreams of leaving town to be a movie star, baseball player, or dancer in a big city. It’s a beautiful song about falling in love, yet a little poignant with characters forgetting their grand dreams in lieu of their “little bitty dreams.” Following this is the rocking “Guitar or a Gun.” Hoge penned this tune with Gary Allan and Dylan Altman, and told Saving Country Music that he had actually written 12 verses to the song. Eventually the trio landed on two verses for the song and left the story of a teenager deciding between buying a guitar or a gun unresolved. The comparisons drawn between the two and the pictures painted about the life that would come from them are excellent; “Guitar or a Gun” is one of the album’s top tracks.

The album’s lead single, “Middle of America,” pops up next. As Josh originally wrote in the song review, “The lyrics for once in a song about a small town are actually honest. Basically the picture of rural America that Hoge paints in the listeners’ heads is it isn’t perfect, but that’s just the way things are in rural America.” The infectious pop country melody and description of the town in the song make “Middle of America” enjoyable. Not to mention the album’s name comes from the song’s chorus. However, Small Town Dreams, isn’t a perfect album, and stumbles a bit with the next track, “All I Want Is Us Tonight.” The song carries a more pure pop-rock production with some vocal effects and distortion in the chorus. And lines like “wear your pretty black dress, wear your faded blue jeans” make me shake my head just a bit. I’m not surprised that Altman and Hoge let a little bit mainstream influences seep into this album, and thankfully “All I Want Is Us Tonight” is the only song on the album that commits these current country sins.

However, after a small slip up, Small Town Dreams immediately offers up another standout track. “Just up the Road” is a song about a couple searching to rediscover their passion. They don’t want to give up, and starting a new life out of town might be their answer. Hoge pleads for her to go with him to that “place called forever…waiting just up the road.” Will Hoge was also able to get Vince Gill to play guitar on this track, and Gill’s guitar riffs behind Hoge’s vocals are awesome. And further adding to the theme of Small Town Dreams is “Desperate Times.” The economy has hit the town hard, and though some folks are packing up to find something better elsewhere, Hoge is determined to stick it out with his family. With a feel good, upbeat country-rock melody, this song is presented with a bit of motivation for those working hard to get by.

“The Last Thing I Need” is an atypical, but excellent love song. Co-written with Chris Stapleton, Will Hoge sings about living the rambling life. Getting wild in bars and phone numbers of women he only intends to spend one night with is all that’s on his mind.  So when he met the special girl that made him fall in love that was the last thing he thought he needed in his life. However, after falling in love, Hoge learns that she is indeed the last thing he needed, and now his life feels complete with her in it, no matter what. The story and lyrics are presented in a unique way with a heavy, bluesy rock production behind it. Small Town Dreams ends with the rocking “Til I Do It Again.” Another Hoge/Allan/Altman co-write, this song tells the story of a man who goes out and parties hard most weekends. He knows it’s wrong to do this and that he should stop and slow down, but he just can’t. So he says “that’s the last time I do it, til I do it again.” This is a fun rocker, very typical Will Hoge song that serves as an excellent close to the album.

I talked in the album preview how it was Hoge’s vision to create an album with more mass appeal while maintaining his roots, and I think it’s safe to say that Small Town Dreams has done just that. A slicker, cleaner production certainly allows these songs to sound more radio friendly, and Hoge collaborates with some of country’s better songwriters including Hillary Lindsey, Chris Stapleton, Gary Allan and Sean McConnell. Lyrically, there’s a good balance between radio buzz words and Hoge’s own signature style that make those tropes feel fresh. For years, Will Hoge has been vastly underrated as a singer and songwriter, and he’s been a well-kept secret in the music business. But the secret’s out with Small Town Dreams, and this is the perfect album to fuel the fire started from Hoge’s recent, small successes.

Grade: 9/10

Derek’s Top 10 Country Songs – February 2015

Capture

Two months into 2015, and we’ve had two months of great country music releases. I found February a bit easier to narrow down to ten song, but the music is still, nonetheless, fantastic. From singer songwriters to bands we have a multitude of country styles and songs. I have a diverse top ten list this month:

  1. “Jubilee” by Gretchen Peters – A beautiful song told from the point of view of someone on death’s bed. Reflecting back on what made life meaningful and looking onward with your head held high in acceptance, Peters knocks this one out of the park. “Jubilee” is not only, in my opinion, the best song off Blackbirds, but is also my favorite song of the month.
  2. “Out The Door” by The Mavericks – On an album chock full of energetic and unique productions, this song stands out with is old-school Doo-Wop melody. Even the more somber material of a broken love doesn’t bring down the fun groove of this song.
  3. “When All You Got is a Hammer” by Gretchen Peters – A rough song dealing with the horrors and anxiety that comes from PTSD. This song about a soldier returning home has great detailed writing with a nice, rocking beat that compliments the material well.
  4. “Slow Boat to China” by The Western Swing Authority – A love song about wanting to spend as much time as possible with the one you love. I applaud the band for taking an original approach to a love song. The vocals and melody shine on this track, not to mention a pleasing instrumental break in the song. My favorite off Now Playing.
  5. “Mutineer” by Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires – A love song told with pirate and maritime metaphors. What more can you ask for? I love the stripped down production of the song, and both vocal performances here are top-notch. The better offering off the two-song E.P Sea Songs.
  6. “What You Do to Me” by The Mavericks – Equally as fun and energetic as the other Mavericks’ song on this list, but a more light-hearted and positive love song.
  7. “52 Vincent Black Lightning” by Robert Earl Keen – This timeless song has been a favorite of mine ever since I first heard it a few years ago. An outlaw on a motorcycle falls for a girl, and leaves her his prized motorbike after his untimely death. A unique love story with great writing and rhyme schemes. Robert Earl Keen’s bluegrass rendition of Richard Thompson’s classic is well done here.
  8. “Blackbirds” by Gretchen Peters – The title track to Peters’ fantastic album cannot be overlooked. The intense guitar riffs combined with Gretchen Peters’ haunting vocal delivery and biting lyrics create a wonderfully dark, yet great murder ballad.
  9. Fence Post” by Aaron Watson – Songs that call out mainstream country are always a nice treat. The fearlessness and fun that Aaron Watson sings this song with are great. Watson is a true underdog, and he pulls no punches with this one. Plus, Watson does actual country spoken word on this song and not bogus R&B/Pop/Hip Hop spoken word.
  10. “Losing Side of Twenty Five” by American Aquarium – This is my favorite song off Wolves. As a man right around this age group, I like the way the story and life situations are presented in this song. It’s authentic and well told. Also, the guitar lick on this song is awesome.

That’s my top ten!  I’d love to hear some of your favorites from the month.

 

Review – Doug Briney’s “Pretty Big Deal”

pretty big bw

When you look around mainstream country music today, the male country artists are different from decades before. The cowboy hats have been replaced with backwards baseball caps and wear jeans sagging off them instead of jeans that actually fit. The male artists dance around on stage at concerts and rely on “bells and whistles” to entertain the audience. But not Doug Briney. No, Mr. Briney is a throwback to the yesteryears of country music. He wears a cowboy hat, is a family man and has a deep, baritone voice that entertains the crowd. In 2014 he won the IMEA Best Video Award and was a nomination for a 2014 AMG Heritage Award and 2014 Nashville Universe Award for Best Male. Today I look at his third single, “Pretty Big Deal,” from his Top 10 Roots Music Report album Super Country Cowboy.

Right away you’ll notice this is a pure country song. The steel guitar is loud and proud through the song. There’s also a healthy dose of the fiddle in there too. It puts you in mind of the country music you would hear in the 90s. It’s nothing fancy, but many times less is more when it comes to instrumentation in country music. There’s no need for fancy machines and remixes to make a great song. As they say all you need is three chords and the truth to make a good country song. So I applaud Briney for the spot-on instrumentation.

The song itself is about the joys of being a father. Briney sings about not being rich and famous and not being “outstanding in his field.” However when he’s at home with his kids they view him as a pretty big deal. All he has to do kill a spider, push them on a swing or get them a pizza and he’s viewed as pretty great in his kids eyes. The song comes across as real and sincere because it is. Briney is a father and you can tell he sings this from experience. This song celebrates the role of dads in a kids life and it’s great to hear a song for once that celebrates parenthood. It feels like I haven’t heard a country song for a while with this theme.

Briney’s weathered voice combined with the steel guitar makes for a great combination. Then you have a song like “Pretty Big Deal” which is right in Briney’s wheelhouse. He’s simply singing what he knows and it’s something many artists out there need to keep in mind when cutting songs. The sincerity more than anything makes me like this song. It’s real and human. It doesn’t feel cliché, artificial and fake like a lot of mainstream country songs today that go for the down-to-earth angle. This is a solid country song for the everyday man performed by the everyday man. “Pretty Big Deal” is a pretty good song.

Grade: 8/10