DESPERATE MAN — Eric Church

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

WOULDN’T IT BE GREAT — Loretta Lynn

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

NOTHIN’ UNEXPECTED — Ags Connolly

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

LETTERS NEVER READ — Dori Freeman

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

I GOT YOUR MEDICINE — Shinyribs

ShinyribsI suppose we need to get this out of the way first. I Got Your Medicine is not really a country album. It’s a … ummmm … okay, it’s impossible to classify. But it’s certainly one of the most fun albums to come out since the Gourds romped across Texas. And perhaps that should be no surprise, since Kevin Russell, the mastermind behind Shinyribs, was also the mastermind behind the rollicking Gourds.

If you are willing to stretch your musical tastes, you’ll find some pretty good tracks on this album. A bit of country and rockabilly can be found, a bit of cajun, a bit of rock, a dose of Motown, a bit of Elvis. Not all of the tracks will appeal to you, but those that do will be catchy. It may take a track or two, or a listen or two, before your brain can properly process Shinyribs.

The title tune kicks off the album, and is a bit of a cross between a crooner song and a Tex-Mex tune. Interesting mix. “Don’t Leave It a Lie” is maybe a blues song? I guess that’s as close as we can get to quantifying this one.

“I Gave Up All I Had” brings in some early 1960s rock with an undercurrent of doo-wop. “Trouble, Trouble” is more of a Texas rocker. Then we get into “Tub Gut Stomp & Red-Eyed Soul” with its “Don’t Be Cruel” intro that evolves into a good-time country rocker.

“I Knew It All Along” has overtones of an early 1960s pop love song with hints of Motown. Then comes one of my favorite tracks, a cover of Allen Toussaint’s “A Certain Girl,” with Russell answering the back-up singers when they ask “What’s her name?” and he replies “I can’t tell.” Lots of fun. Things slow way down with “Nothing Takes the Place of You.” Sharp-eared listeners of Texas music will recognize this as a song cut by Asleep at the Wheel in the late 1970s when Chris O’Connell was AATW’s lead female singer.

We’re back to that fusion of country and early 1960s pop/rock with “Hands on Your Hips.” The next song is the one that’s gonna get the most attention, “I Don’t Give a Sh*t,” primarily because it contains the word “sh*t.” Get rid of the novelty of the word, though, and the song still holds up pretty well with Russell trading lines with an unnamed female singer. The melody is memorable and it’s obvious it was a lot of fun for the group to record.

“Ambulance” is maybe the weakest cut on the album. The album concludes with the big sound of the gospel rocker “The Cross Is Boss,” putting a nice cap on the album.

Kevin Russell says Shinyribs is “country-soul” and “swamp-funk.” That may describe it as well as anything. No matter what, it’s good music. It may take you a minute or two to figure out what’s going on, but once you do you’ll be hooked. And do yourself a favor and check out some in-concert videos of Shinyribs on YouTube to see just how much fun they have doing these songs.

Rating: 7.5/10

TOO MUCH IS NEVER ENOUGH — AJ Hobbs

aj_hobbsOutlaw country appears to be alive and well. Sturgill Simpson was proving it (until his third album, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth) and Steve Earle came up with his best album in years with So You Wannabe An Outlaw. Even Aaron Lewis got into the act with Sinner.

Too Much Is Never Enough, the debut album from AJ Hobbs, builds upon the outlaw tradition, while mixing some other sounds as well. You’ll find a lot to like here.

The opener is the album’s title track, and it’s pure rockabilly. It’s a honky-tonk version of Jerry Lee Lewis, perhaps. Next, we settle into the outlaw half-beat sound with the Waylon-esque “Life Without You,” straight out of the mid-1980s.

The Waylon sound continues into the third track, “The Loser,” complete with the Ralph Mooney sound of the pedal steel. “The Bottle Let Me Down” is a reworked version of the Merle Haggard tune. Hobbs slows it down a bit and adds horns to the mix. I’m not sure this version works, though, and it may be the weakest song on the album.

Hobbs rebounds nicely with the shuffling “Daddy Loved the Lord.” This is pretty much as pure country as you’ll get. Some strange backing vocals kick off “Eastside,” which turns into a Chris Stapleton-type blues number. Once you get into the song with its solid dose of pedal steel, it works. The intro is just a bit strange.

The next song, “S**t Got Real,” is a page out of the Waylon/Willie late 1970s outlaw sound. It reminds me a lot of the sound Willie captured on his two Atlantic albums, Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages. Up next, though, is a western swing tune, “Are You Going To Tennessee?” AJ handles this as well as he handles the outlaw stuff. It’s great.

Acoustic guitar and fiddle ease us into the classic 1960s country sound of “A Whole Lot of You and Me.” It’s an easy song to just get lost in. Dominique Pruitt joins in as a duet partner on “Take It Slow.” This also could come right out of the era of the great duets of Loretta and Conway or Dolly and Porter.

The album closes out with songs about artists who are sticking to the country sound and not selling out to radio. First, Hobbs laments that he can’t get radio airplay as he pays tribute to “Waylon and Merle” on a honky-tonk tune. When Hobbs drops names, he stays true to what the artists stood for (unlike some contemporary posers who drop names without being true to the music  <cough> Jason Alean <cough>). It’s back to the outlaw beat with “Tomorrow I’ll Be Hurtin’,”  which sticks to a similar theme of the hardluck singer that was in “Waylon and Merle.”

This is an incredibly strong album with a nice mix of outlaw and honky-tonk, with detours into classic country. From one end to the other, it stays consistently good. Can’t wait to hear more from AJ Hobbs.

Rating: 8.5/10

ON THE ROCKS — Midland

MidlandThere has been a nice resurgence of retro-country recently. Sure, there have always been artists interested in the traditional sound of honky-tonk, but the new resurgence has found artists focusing on distinct eras in country music history. We already looked at Zepheniah OHora’s “Nashville Sound” of the 1960s on his most recent album This Highway. Meanwhile, some artists are turning to a 1990s sound, including Sons of the Palomino (which we’ll be getting to in a week or so) and today’s group, Midland, with their debut album On the Rocks.

Midland is made up of mark Wystrach on lead vocals, Cameron Duddy on bass and backing vocals, and Jess Carson on lead guitar and backing vocals. At least one of the three had a hand in writing every song on the album. This album started out as a self-titled EP in 2016 and was turned into a full album in 2017. With a sound reminiscent of Alabama in their Southern Star days, Midland does an excellent job at retro country.

A deep guitar and pedal steel kick this album off on the right foot with “Lonely For You Only.” This sets the tone for the rest of the album. The pace picks up with a honky-tonk shuffle “Make A Little,” although the chorus on this is a bit lame. It was released to radio and topped out in the 20s. You can tell this song is a concession to mainstream radio, as it’s probably the weakest song on the album.

Midland’s signature song is the third cut on this album, “Drinkin’ Problem” with its cha-cha beat. This song went to number one on mainstream radio, which is pretty amazing given this is a straight-ahead country arrangement. “At Least You Cried” picks the pace back up, and the Alabama-style harmonies come to the forefront.

“Burn Out” slows things back down again, then we’re shuffling again with “Out of Sight.” The deep guitar/steel combo is back on the slightly disco-fied “More Than a Fever.” “Check Cashin’ Country” has more of a modern Texas music sound to it and is a departure from the 1990s sound that dominates the album.

“Nothin’ New Under the Neon” even has a 1990s-sounding title. This is clearly a retro song, perhaps in the spirit of Brooks & Dunn. “This Old Heart” bounces along with its 1990s chorus (I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but this album is remarkably anchored in the last decade of the last century). “Altitude Adjustment” gets back to an Alabama-type sound (which is not a bad thing; in fact, with its lack of strings, Midland may actually outdo Alabama in a straight-ahead country arrangement).

Suddenly, Midland departs from the straight-ahead country sound with an interesting intro into “Electric Rodeo,” but once the song kicks in, it is quite a good song. The final song, “Somewhere On the Wind,” is a strong closer with an undercurrent of bluegrass.

This may be the best thing I’ve heard in the past 12 months. Midland is pure country from the past, and while a delightful album it is also a sad reminder of what we have lost in the intervening 20 years.

Rating: 9/10