Eric ChurchSome country music innovators get it. Some don’t. Waylon Jennings was a great innovator. Ronnie Milsap was a great innovator. The best stretch the bounds of country music to new levels without stepping outside the bounds — it’s still country. And of all the artists on mainstream country radio — especially the stadium acts — usually the only one that seems to “get it” is Eric Church. Granted, he’s no Waylon or Ronnie, and a lot of what he does departs from country music by quite a bit, but when he hits it right, he hits it right. As such, Church’s new album, Desperate Man, takes a lot of swings at the boundaries. Many of them are misses. But when he hits, he shows why he’s the best of the mainstream stadium guys. It also helps that, unlike his stadium brethren like Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, and others, Church foregoes bro-country — even the misses have more depth than what any of the others are doing.

The album opens up with the very Ray Wylie Hubbard-esque “The Snake,” a song of good versus evil. It’s very similar to some of the material on Hubbard’s latest album. It’s  a thumpy blues-infused narrative. The second song on the album, “Hangin’ Around,” really has no redeeming value whatsoever.

Things dramatically change with “Heart Like a Wheel” (not the 1970s Linda Ronstadt tune), a slow-burning leather-and-lace tune. “Some of It” has great country phrasing and is one of the highlights on the album. Bubbling under the surface of “Monsters” is a pretty good gospel-themed tune.

Church is always going back in time to remember the music of the past — “Springsteen” and “Talladega” come to mind — and this album has its moment with “Hippie Radio,” a flashback to 1960s rock. It’s not as good as “Springsteen” was, but it’s pretty good. The album falters again, though, with “Higher Wire,” where Church’s tendency to sound whiny comes through.

Speaking of Ray Wylie Hubbard, he co-wrote the album’s title track, “Desperate Man.” Get through the undercurrent of “boop-boop-boop” background vocals (and, yeah, they might actually grow on you) and you might find something that could pass for a Marshall Tucker Band song. It’s actually quite good. “Solid” is an okay song, but I really couldn’t get into it — a little too dreamy and bluesy for my taste. But “A Jukebox and a Bar” is a real country weeper and is another album highlight. The album finishes off with “Drowning Man,” which starts off stripped-down but builds as the song progresses. It’s a strong conclusion to a sometimes uneven album.

Overall, this album is pretty much what we’ve come to expect from Eric Church. He has a couple of tunes that are friendly to today’s radio without falling into the bro-country trap, but for the most part he ignores what is considered radio-friendly and records what he wants. A lot of it is progressive country, a lot of it is unidentifiable. But overall, he remains above his stadium-act peers.

Rating: 7.5/10


LorettaLynnWouldn'tItBeGreatFrom the moment you first hear Loretta Lynn on the opening title track of Wouldn’t It Be Great, you can’t help but think, “Wow, she hasn’t lost anything.” Her voice seems to have not aged a lick since she was getting as much airplay as anyone on country radio in the 1970s. This album is nothing short of true country music from one of the best the business has ever produced.

This album was recorded in 2017 at the Cash Cabin Studio with producers John Carter Cash and Patsy Lynn Russell (Loretta’s daughter). Shortly after it was recorded, Loretta suffered a stroke (which she has largely recovered from) that took her off the road for several months. She wanted to focus on her health, so she put off the release of the album (and the accompanying tour) until this year.

It doesn’t take long for Loretta to get sassy — the album’s second track is the high-energy “Ruby’s Stool.” The third track, the waltzing “I’m Dying For Someone to Live For,” sounds quite a bit like something straight off one of Ms. Loretta’s 1980s albums. Fiddles bring in “Another Bridge to Burn” on the next track, a slow country shuffle that would make Ray Price proud.

Next up is the bluegrass-infused “Ain’t No Time to Go,” written by Loretta and daughter Patsy (as are many of the tracks). Despite being written recently, it has a traditional Appalachia sound. The slow (and perhaps theologically challenging) “God Makes No Mistakes” slows things down again. Pedal steel brings in “These Ole Blues,” something akin to Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesone I Could Cry.”

A lone guitar accompanies Loretta on “My Angel Mother.” Things pick up again with a remake of Loretta’s 1967 hit “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’,” which perhaps is the biggest throwback to the Nashville Sound era on the album. A honky-tonk shuffle beat brings in the gospel tune “The Big Man” — the sound is a bit surprising for the content of the song.

“Lulie Vars” is a traditional Appalachia murder tune (think “Banks of the Ohio”). I mean, what’s an album without a good Appalachian murder tune? Another stand-out honky-tonker follows with “Darkest Day,” which harkens back to the Ray Price/Roger Miller “Invitation to the Blues.” The album finishes strong with a remake of “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the 1970 megahit country standard. As an aside, reportedly “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” as written, had several more verses that were cut out to make the song fit radio. Wouldn’t it be great (see what I did there?) if Loretta would take the opportunity to someday record the song in its entirety?

This album is not quite perfect — it suffers from bad pacing in a couple of spots — but it’s pretty darn good. The material is strong, but not spectacular. But it’s Loretta’s voice that carries this album all the way through. She stakes her claim as a contender for the title of current Greatest Living Country Artist. If you like your country traditional, you can’t go wrong here.

Rating: 8.5/10

MR. JUKEBOX — Joshua Hedley

Joshua HedleyFrom the first notes of Joshua Hedley’s latest album, Mr. Jukebox, you know you’ve been transported back in time. Floyd Cramer-style piano, background singers, and a slow, tear-jerking melody make “Counting All My Tears” something straight out of the 1950s. Pedal steel plays in the background, but countrypolitan is at the forefront.

While Zephaniah OHora took the Nashville Sound of the 1960s and stripped out the strings and background singers on his album This Highway, Hedley hits the sound head-on. This album is a throwback to the dawn of the 1960s when Chet Atkins was producing hits for Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline.

The second cut is the title track that kicks in with honky-tonk fiddles and steel and is very reminiscent of the best stuff Faron Young ever recorded. “Weird Thought Thinker” is a fast waltz that lets the strings introduce it. It’s a very impressive country tune. “Let’s Take a Vacation” has a great country melody with tear-jerking steel under background vocals. It’s plain to hear this is an album that takes great care to reproduce 1950s country as close as possible.

“These Walls” is an upbeat melody with heartbreak lyrics. “I Never (Shed A Tear)” has an arrangement straight out of the Jim Reeves catalog. It’s back to a honky-tonk shuffle for “This Time.” You almost think you’re listening to a 1950s radio program and expect Ray Price to be the next song played. “Don’t Waste Your Tears” brings crying steel back to the forefront, with soaring strings bringing in the chorus. Wow.

“Let Them Talk” takes us back to the honky-tonks again. The album finishes with a shuffling version of “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

This is no “bringing classic country into the 21st century” album. This is an album that is indistinguishable from anything that came out in the late 1950s and early 1960s with no concessions to modern sounds. Some of the best country music to ever be produced is being produced right now — it just needs an outlet so people can hear it. Joshua Hedley hits a home run with this one.

Rating: 9/10


LIFERS — Cody Jinks

Cody JinksAt the forefront of the resurgence of true country music is, in the opinion of many, Cody Jinks. And his latest album, Lifers, shows why. Jinks brings country music into the 21st century, combining traditionalism, outlawism, and a contemporary sound.

The album opens up with “Holy Water,” a hard-driving tune with steel guitar trading with amped-up electric guitars. It sets the mood for the rest of the album. “Must Be the Whiskey” bounces with hardcore country lyricism, with a chorus that’s as good as anything that’s ever been done in the genre. “Somewhere Between I Love You and I’m Leavin'” slows it down quite a bit with a bit of a ’90s feel.

The album’s title tune is up next, and returns to a bouncy beat that would make Alan Jackson proud. “Big Last Name” isn’t the best song on the album, but it’s not offensive; it just a bit on the shallow side compared to what’s come before it so far. We head out west for “Desert Wind,” a slow shuffle with a strong bass line.

A really, really nice ballad follows with “Colorado,” which can be compared (perhaps) to Zac Brown at his best. It’s back to drinkin’ and rockin’ with the outlaw “Can’t Quit Enough.” The really slow “7th Floor” is a bit on the cosmic country side that just doesn’t quite work.

An acoustic guitar carries us into “Stranger,” a ballad about aging. It’s a well-worn concept and this doesn’t really expand on the concept or approach it in any novel way. Finishing the album is “Head Case”  that builds from a soft start and turns into an outlaw look on life. Thematically, it’s similar to “Stranger” but accomplishes what it sets out to do in a much better way. “Head Case” is a great finisher for the album.

It’s easy to see why Cody Jinks is cited as the potential savior of country music. He has as much wide commercial appeal as any artist outside of mainstream country, and is more traditional than the Americana saviors like Jason Isbell or Chris Stapleton. And, unlike some of the throwback artists (Zephaniah OHora, Midland) he doesn’t rely on a past sound — this is the 21st century version of evolving country music.

Rating: 8/10


Ags ConnollyLike all good honky-tonk singers, Ags Connolly comes from — England? Wait a minute… But Ags puts an excellent spin on U.S. country music with his latest album Nothin’ Unexpected — even if a Brit that does Johnny Paycheck covers in concert is entirely unexpected.

The album launches with Texas fiddles and steel on the honky-tonk shuffle “I Hope You’re Unhappy.” You’ll quickly warm up to Ags’ phrasing as he goes through the song. “Do You Realise That Now” slows things down with a Spanish guitar that finds Ags in singer-songwriter mode. His vocals may be the best when he’s doing stripped-down low-key songs like this one. It’s down to an acoustic guitar with “When the Loner Gets Lonely.” A bit of the British flavor comes through when the subject of the song goes to a pub instead of a bar.

We’re back to a honky-tonk shuffle with the fiddle-driven “Neon Jail.” This is followed by “I Suppose,” a slow shuffle driven by fiddle and steel serving as a sweetener for the lead acoustic guitar and Ags’ vocals.

The title track comes next, with Ags back in singer-songwriter mode. An acoustic guitar drives this song of heartbreak. (A lot of the songs, in true country tradition, are heartbreakers.) “Haunts Like This” is a bit of a rockabilly shuffle. “Fifteen Years” is Ags and a guitar in a slow story-teller.

An easy shuffle beat brings in “Slow Burner.” It starts off all-acoustic-guitar, but on the second verse the rest of the band joins in as the song lopes along. Really nice stuff. The album finishes with another slow (but excellent) heartbreaker, “I Should’ve Closed the Book.”

This album hovered at the top of many “Best of 2017” lists, and deservedly so. It’s a true country music gift from across the pond.

Rating: 8.5/10

PALO DURO — Shotgun Rider

shotgun riderOn the one hand, you have mainstream country. On the other hand, you have the traditional sounds coming out of Texas as Red Dirt music. And never the two shall meet, right? Well, maybe…

Shotgun Rider is a duo made up of vocalist Logan Samford and guitarist Anthony Enriquez. Coming from Texas, the duo cites George Strait and Kings of Leon as influences. On their debut album, Palo Duro (named after the canyon that’s near their hometowns), the two come up with a sound not unlike Tim McGraw — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. (And it’s only coincidental the duo shares their name with a McGraw hit from a couple of years ago.) The album swings back and forth between music that would get played on mainstream radio and music you’d find coming out of Fort Worth. The big difference in the mainstream stuff is the songwriting stays sharp, never deteriorating into the mindless fluff that has been a hallmark of Bro-Country.

Kicking off the album is one of those Tim McGraw-sounding intros with the mainstream “Me and a Memory.” As with most mainstream songs, the chorus turns into a wall of sound that loses any kind of subtlety. However, a crying steel guitar brings in the second song, “Steady As She Goes.” It’s an easy Red Dirt beat that lets Samford’s vocals come to the front and carry the song.

“Bottom of This Crown” has another McGraw-esque intro and crosses back to the mainstream side of things, but is far from offensive; it’s actually pretty good. A Tracy Lawrence 1990s vibe brings in “I’m Not Alright” that is a pleasant listen. A Mexican cha-cha beat brings in “Nothin’ At All,” which sticks to the traditional sound. Crying steel brings in the traditional sad country song “Lucky Him.” Sometimes it’s hard to remember this album had mainstream-sounding stuff at the beginning, because it really settles down into pure modern country.

“Texas Rain” starts out sounding like it will keep the Red Dirt sound coming (heck, it has “Texas” in the title) but it tries to straddle Red Dirt and mainstream with mixed results. We’re back to a McGraw intro with “Time Don’t Turn,” and this song sounds pretty much like Tim could have recorded. Once again, it has more of a mainstream feel to it. The album concludes with “Lovin’ Up On You,” which has a Kenny Chesney-type into. This one once again tries to straddle Red Dirt and mainstream, and does so more successfully than “Texas Rain” did.

This is clearly a tale of two albums — on one side, you have stuff that could make mainstream radio (but if it did, it would be some of the best-sounding material on mainstream radio), and on the other side you have songs that would find a happy home in any Red Dirt/traditional collection. Perhaps this is an album you need to cherry pick to find what you like, because there may be stuff you don’t like. It would be good if Shotgun Rider did get some mainstream attention, because it might lead people who like the rockish stuff to discover what traditional country sounds like. Even if you don’t care for half of the material on this album, it’s still worth picking up. It’s a bit rocky at the beginning and the end, but the middle of this album is pretty darn solid.

Rating: 7/10


Dori FreemanWhen it comes to female country singers, the mainstream has decidedly moved away from anything remotely traditional. Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini, Maren Morris, and others are somehow called “country” despite arrangements that are decidedly pop, rock, or just plain bad.

In the “other” country music world, where real country thrives, there are some fantastic traditional female artists. Margo Price is the current darling of the Americana/roots/country world, but coming in a close second is Dori Freeman from Galax, Virginia. And Dori’s sophomore album, Letters Never Read, is a cleanly produced walk down an Appalachian country road.

The album starts off with an easy country waltz, “If I Could Make You My Own,” with its bluegrass-ish high harmonies on the chorus. “Just Say It Now” has a bit of a poppish feel to it, but the arrangement stays simple and true. “Lovers On the Run” seems like it could be a Kim Richey song in the way it’s written.

“Cold Waves” slows things down a bit with its dark theme. However, the next tune is a lot of fun. “Ern and Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog” was written by Dori’s grandfather, and Dori delivers it in pure a cappella style — nary a guitar or drum to be heard on this one. It’s a nice slice of rural Appalachia. Traditional Appalachia is at the forefront on the next song, as well, “Over There.” While “Ern and Zorry” had no instruments, this one has a bare minimum.

An organ and a solid drum beat spice up the next tune, “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.” With a different arrangement, “Turtle Dove” could be a 1950s lounge crooner song. “That’s All Right” is another dark song of a broken relationship. The album concludes with a cover of Jim Reeves’ “Yonder Comes a Sucker.” Interestingly, this song has only drums as a backing.

This album at times is a throwback to much simpler music. The simplicity lets Dori’s beautiful high voice come to the forefront — she never has to compete with the arrangements. If you want to hear what’s missing from mainstream female artists in today’s country music, this album is Exhibit A.

Rating: 8/10