Saturday, January 4, 2014

Breaking Down Johnny Cash's Universal Appeal

Happy New Year, everyone!  I wanted to take a moment to step back from focusing on the uncertain future of country music and look back at one of country's most talented, authentic, and beloved singers of all time.

Although Johnny Cash is basically the pride and joy of country music, his music transcends genres.  I have talked to many people who can't stand country music (it hurts, I know) but love Johnny Cash.  When I asked them why this is, they replied "Well, he's not really country... he's…. well, he's just Johnny Cash".  Exactly.  There is a quality in Johnny Cash's music that no one can quite place, yet everyone can feel.  Maybe we just aren't used to someone bearing his heart so honestly in his songs while articulating exactly what each of us feels but maybe don't have the courage to say out loud.  His music not only transcends music boundaries, but generational ones as well.  I imagine his fan base is one of the most diverse in all of music:  He has older fans who were lucky enough to see and listen to him at the start of his career in the '50s while also having a substantial amount of younger fans whose parents may not have even been alive in the 1950's.

I would like to dedicate this blog to one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs and one of my favorite musical performances of all time.  Here Johnny is at a college campus and is performing his famous song, "Man in Black", for the very first time.  If you listen to lyrics, you'll agree that they're still extremely relevant today but take a moment to think about this song in context.  He is performing it (on national television, by the way) in 1971, following a decade of social unrest, change, and protest in America.  JFK assassination.  Cold War.  Martin Luther King Assassination.  Vietnam War.  

My favorite part of this video is to watch the faces of the college students as the song progresses.  They are not talking amongst themselves or screaming obnoxiously over Johnny's voice.  They are right there with him, hanging onto every word.  And they get it.  This video, right here, this is why Johnny Cash is considered one of the greatest artists of all time.  This is why convicts, Christians, minorities, old, and young are all proud to be fans of the man in black.                 
Hopefully the video will show up, but if it doesn't follow this link: 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Five New Artists That Are Going to Save Country Music

You know this old world is full of singers but just a few are chosen to tear your heart out when they sing… Who's gonna fill their shoes?  Who's gonna stand that tall?  Who's gonna play the Opry and the Wabash Cannonball?  Who's gonna give their heart and soul to get to me and you?
                                                     -"Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes" George Jones
Since I left everyone on a gloomy note after my last post, I thought it would be nice to share a little hope and optimism in this one :)

So even though I have made it abundantly clear that I'm not a fan this new country/rap/pop craze going around, there are some new artists on the horizon that give me hope for the future of country music (and consequently, help me get out of bed each morning).  I don't necessarily believe that every one of these artists is going to have monstrous success on the radio, but I love each and every one of them for the simple reason that they don't conform; none of their styles are similar and none of their lyrics are the same… and that's what makes them great.    
(These are in no particular order)

1. Brett Eldredge

Ahh Brett Eldredge… where to begin?  If you've been listening to the radio at all in the last couple of months, I'm sure you've heard his #1 song, "Don't Ya" coming though your speakers.  On every station.  Every hour. On the hour.  All day.  Yet, even though it seemed like all of the DJs in country radio were having a secret competition amongst themselves called "Who can make their audience tired of this song the fastest?",  it didn't work because every single time this song comes on, my heart leaps and I always wind up singing that one really intense "that smile has got me spinning around!" at the top of my lungs.

I didn't know what to expect from his debut album, "Bring You Back" because I thought he could be in danger of having a CD full of drinking songs without any substance but I couldn't have been more presently surprised!  Brett managed to release an extremely impressive CD that is contemporary, fun, heartfelt, and heart wrenching all at the same time.  "Bring You Back" encompasses a surprising array of human emotions and he even brings back the classic technique of storytelling that has always been a trademark of country music but that has been strangely absent from country radio these days (see "Raymond" and "Signs").

On top of great lyrics and powerful arrangements, I venture to say that Brett has one of the strongest and most unique voices in country music today.  This combination is unstoppable and if you listen to his album, I hope it is clear why he earned a spot on this list.

2. Charlie Worsham

Charlie Worsham (1) has a hilarious last name and (2) fearlessly entered the country music scene with a timeless sound that made me want to cry from happiness the first time I heard it.  I first heard the beautiful opening lyrics to his debut single, "Could It Be", on Sirius XM and immediately stopped what I was doing to pay closer attention.  At first I thought that my radio must have switched to a classic country station because the chorus of "Could It Be" reminded me so much of the beautiful harmonies of Alabama that I couldn't let myself believe that it was playing on a new country station.  But, alas, dreams do come true :)

His debut album, "Rubberband", was released in August and each song stays true to the sound introduced in "Could It Be".  He does not have an extraordinarily powerful voice, but the arrangement of his songs compliments his softer voice and give his songs an intimacy that may not be felt if they were sung by other artists.  Like Brett Eldredge, he also shows off his storytelling skills in songs like "How I Learned to Pray" and "Love Don't Die Easy".  His song "Tools of the Trade" also features Vince Gill and Marty Stuart, which is a pretty impressive duo to have for an artist's first album.

3. Kacey Musgraves

I've already dedicated a blog post to the unbelievable wonder that is Kacey Musgraves but she deserves to be mentioned again because she has already been credited by music critics much more prestigious than myself as someone with the power and talent to open the door for other young artists with a more traditional country sound.  If my last blog post didn't inspire you to listen to "Same Trailer, Different Park", I am now BEGGING you to do it!  Even the Country Music Association agrees that she is 2013's best new artist :)

My bro and I with Kacey

4. Ashley Monroe

I vividly remember the first time I listened to "Like A Rose" because it completely shocked me- in a great way.  At that point, all I knew about Ashley was that she was a Pistol Annie which, in my mind, meant that I should expect a CD full of songs about angry ex-girlfriends plotting the murders of their cheating exes.  What I found, however, was a very traditional sounding CD full of sweet, genuine, and honest songs. What I hear in these songs is a young woman who has had to go through life's races at an earlier age than most, yet has come out of those trials singing a song of hope and love.  One of my favorite songs on the album is called "Used" and I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone who cannot relate to these lyrics: "This fragile heart has been passed around/been ignored and been let down… but I can give like I couldn't give before/ in the end I can love a whole lot more/used".  With the state of country radio as it is, I can't promise that Ashley will get a lot of air time with these songs but if you are looking country music with more vulnerability and beauty than most, Ashley is your girl.


5. Lee Brice

Lee Brice really is a gift to country music for two reasons: his songwriting and his unbelievably strong voice.  Along with Brett Eldredge, Lee has the unique ability to make his voice raspy, powerful, and heartbreaking when needed but then turn around and make his voice as sweet and gentle as an angel (cheesy but true) during his songs' most intimate moments.  Lee didn't write every single song on his sophomore album, "Hard 2 Love", but here is a brief list of songs he's co-written that show why his songwriting abilities should never be questioned:
1. More Than A Memory- Garth Brooks……………..
2. Crazy Girl- Eli Young Band..……………………...
3. Still- Tim McGraw…………………………………
4. Not Every Man Lives- Jason Aldean………………
5. Only God Could Love You More- Jerrod Neimann

It was really hard for me to decide which two songs to link here but I chose "That Way Again" because the story in this song grabbed me at the first line and did not release me until the end (why am I being so cheesy today?).  It shows the side of love that is often ignored in music- the struggle to stay with the one you love after the 'honeymoon' phase is over and the sacrifices each must make in order to have a successful marriage.  I chose "One More Day" because it reveals the unglamorous side of life on the road and reminds us of the cost these musicians and their families pay so that we are able to receive the beautiful gift of live music.   


Friday, August 2, 2013

Why I Take Issue With Luke Bryan's New Single, "That's My Kind of Night" (and Why It Pains Me To Write This)

I love Luke Bryan.  I really do.  Just last month I was in the front row of his Dirt Road Diaries tour, rocking out like crazy with no attempt to act like a sane human being and having way too good of a time.  A few days ago, I heard that he was releasing a new single and eagerly waited with my ear glued to the radio all day until they played it...and then something awful happened.  They played it. (you can listen to his much anticipated song, "That's My Kinda Night" here:  Here's pretty much how it went down:

The Anticipation
It begins. Strong pop beat is not promising.

"I got that real good, feel good stuff"

Around the time the T-Pain reference came


Now it's catchy, ok?  There's no denying it and that one phrase "catch us up a little catfish dinner" has been popping into my brain at totally random times so I can see why Luke or his manager or record label or whoever decides which songs are to be released to radio chose to put this one out.  I mean, let's be honest, these energetic songs with a popish beat about how great the country life is while a hot girl passes them another beer have been doing tremendously well these past few years, as has country rap.  Considering the success of Luke's previous singles, "Crash My Party", "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye", "Drunk on You", and "I Don't Want This Night To End", I guess it made sense to release another song where Luke kind of comes off as a weird mix between country boy and frat boy.  (Ok, this is getting harsh.  I do love Luke Bryan- I promise I do.  Just bear with me, here).

I think what upsets me the most about "That's My Kinda Night" is that I can't find any resemblance between the character in this song and the Luke Bryan we all fell in love with through songs like "Do I", "What Country Is", "Tackle Box", and "We Rode In Trucks".  Believe it or not, those last two songs are from an album called "I'll Stay Me"...  Oh the irony!

But do you want to know something that may shock you based on what I've said so far?  The rest of his new album, "Crash My Party" sounds pretty darn good.  "Dirt Road Diary" has been a crowd favorite for some time and the studio version sounds very promising.  So please don't walk away from this thinking that I believe Luke Bryan has completely morphed into an unrecognizable artist who is incapable of making genuinely good music anymore, because that couldn't be farther from the truth. He's still got a beautiful voice and a knack for songwriting that landed him a record deal within two months of moving to Nashville years ago.

If you'll allow me to now digress into a short rant about a lot of new country I would be much obliged.

It bothers me that all of these country singers with great CDs mostly full of heartfelt songs that tell great stories end up releasing cliché songs that we've all heard a million times.  In one of my favorite movies, Walk the Line, record producer, Sam Phillips, gives Johnny Cash one of the most beautiful and inspiring speeches ever:

 "If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song.  One song that people would remember before you're dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You tellin' me that's the song you'd sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day.... Or would you sing somethin' different. Somethin' real. Somethin' you felt. Cause I'm telling you right now, that's the kind of song people want to hear. That's the kind of song that truly saves people."   

Look, I'm not saying every song on country radio needs to be as intense and deeply emotional as the kind of song Sam Phillips is asking for here and I know that sometimes you just need a fun party
song to dance to but when did it become expected of country singers to release a love/heartache song 50% of the time and a drinking/country-is-better-than-you song the other 50% percent?
           For example,  some of you may remember how much I love Tim McGraw's CD "Two Lanes of Freedom".  It's fantastic. In fact, there are only two songs on that album that I am not crazy about because I think they're pretty reminiscent to every other song on the radio.  Take a wild guess which ones those are.  If you said "Truck Yeah" and "Southern Girl"  you'd be right on the money.  Guess which songs off of his album have been released as singles.  Yeah... see what I'm saying?

Eric Church expresses my feelings way better than I ever could in his song "Lotta Boot Left to Fill".  Just listen to the opening lyrics:
                                           Get ups, Gimics,
                                           One hit wonders that don't stick.
                                           Pretty boys actin' tough,
                                           boy bands, give it up.
                                           And if it looks good on TV,
                                           it'll look good on a CD.
                                          Shape it up, trim it down.
                                          Who gives a damn about how it sounds?

Ok thank you for letting me get that off my chest. I obviously had a lot of feelings.  But listen, please don't think that I despise songs like "Cruise" or "Boys 'Round Here' just because they don't have much substance. In fact, most days I really love them and I'll be the first to yell "Chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco-spit!" whenever the opportunity arises.  I just wish those in the music industry would find the courage to release a song that is new, original, and unique because I truly believe there's a hunger for that among country fans.  Anyone smart enough to capitalize on that hunger may just find a nice spot carved out for them in the long history of country music.  

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Chuck Wicks: A Star...Nearly

I've always been a huge fan of Chuck Wicks and I will be the first to say that he is highly underrated.

You may remember him from his 2007 top ten hit "Stealing Cinderella" or his not-so-successful stint on  the 8th season of Dancing With the Stars.
Hey, at least he tried.

Like most things in my life, it all started with Brad Paisley.  I got great tickets (thank you fan club membership) to Brad's show and wanted to make sure that I knew all of the opening acts. You know, to make sure I got the most out of my concert experience.  Chuck's name was on the ticket so I raced out to Target the week his CD was released and quickly fell in love with him his voice.  Chuck not making it huge in country music doesn't really add up:

            He writes his own songs with lyrics we haven't heard a million times.
            He's good-looking.
            He has a beautiful voice.
            He's super good-looking.
            He uses a unique mix of Country, R&B, and Soul.
            He's ridiculously good-looking.

So here's my prediction:  I don't think we've heard the last of Chuck Wicks.  His new EP "Rough" is even better than his debut album and if his new music is any indication of where his careers heading, he will have another radio hit.  Guaranteed.  It may not be this month; it may not be this year but Chuck is coming back with a fire and determination that will that eventually get him to the top of the country charts.  

To give you a taste of what Chuck is all about, go listen to one of his new songs called "Always".  It's a very powerful song that will make you ache, even though the lyrics are pretty upbeat.

"Fix Me" is also amazing:

As is "What if You Stay"


Sunday, June 9, 2013

Graduation and Goodbyes: "Those I've Loved" by Eric Church

While I was attending my school's graduation this past week it hit me: Next year that's going to be me.  I'm going to be the one walking across stage to receive my (somewhat) well-deserved diploma, the one crying unashamed as I say goodbye to my friends, and the leaving home to brave this world on my own.

After I realized this I almost ran home, hid under my covers, and cried thought about all of the people who have supported me through the years and made me the person I am today.  I remembered the song "Those I've Loved" by Eric Church and I suddenly wanted everyone I've ever known to listen to this song and know that I would not be who I am without them.  Heck, even the people I didn't really love, like the girls that were mean to me in middle school, helped to shape my life.  I guess it just goes to show you that everything truly does happen for a reason and God deliberately puts people in your life that will help you grow as an individual.

Maybe there are people in your life that you simply cannot stand or that annoy you to no end.  Today instead of cursing them under your breath or gossiping about them with friends, try thanking God for putting them in life (then ask him for patience when dealing with them). Because who knows? Maybe they'll help you become the person God wants you to be.  

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Milestone for Women: "Once a Day" by Connie Smith

I'm sorry, guys.  I offer my deepest, heartfelt apologies for my inexplicable absence these past few weeks.  I'm not quite sure how time got so far away from me but I'm thinking that if I blow these next few blog posts out of the water this whole fiasco will be forgivable in time.  Ok, here we go :)

You know that paid program that advertises a box set of country songs from the '50s and '60s and plays like 24 hours a day?  It draws you in by showing up as "Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and more" on your TV guide and you click on it excitedly thinking that it is a TV special on their lives or their music, only to find that it is actually just an advertisement (let's just pretend like I'm not the only one who gets fooled into clicking on paid programs).
Look familiar?
          Even though half of me had this unjustified resentment toward the program, the other half really wanted the CDs they were advertising.  Lo and behold, my wonderful parents bought me the set for my birthday and I discovered some amazing country music.  One of my favorite songs in the collection is "Once a Day" by Connie Smith.  The song stuck out to me because of the uniquely country lyrics in the chorus ("The only time I wish you weren't gone is once a day, everyday, all day long"); they are quirky, clever, and sad.  What more could you want in a country song?

I didn't realize until later how important this song is to the history of country music.  It was written for Connie by Whisperin' Bill Anderson, a legendary songwriter who has written modern hits such as "Give It Away" for George Strait and "Whiskey Lullaby" for Brad Paisley and Allison Kraus, and was the first ever debut single by a female to reach No.1.  Pretty impressive stuff.  For 48 years it also held the record for the country record with the most weeks spent at No.1 (for a female).  Taylor Swift broke this record last December when "We Are Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together" stayed at the No.1 position one week longer than "Once a Day" (Whether or not "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" should even be considered a country song is a discussion for a different day, I suppose).

Remember, we're talking about 1964 here.  Record companies still didn't totally buy the idea that women could be just as successful as men and women had to fight hard for respect in the music industry.  "Once a Day" was influential in breaking down these boundaries and helped pave the way for the female singers we love today.                        



Monday, May 6, 2013

Country Music's Favorite Couple: "Better in the Long Run" by Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert

This morning I woke up to my local country station and heard some super exciting news.  MIRANDA LAMBERT IS PREGNANT!  I shot up in bed and turned up the station only to hear them follow up this announcement by saying that there is some speculation over the legitimacy of these claims.  They then said that the true announcement should be 'Miranda Lambert might be pregnant'.

Well, dagum.

After a quick google search, I concluded that Miranda isn't pregnant, yet the mystery continued when I stopped into Target and saw Blake and Miranda smiling on a big old magazine with the caption "Baby Bliss" under their beautiful faces.

It seems like rumors of these two expecting a kid have been randomly showing up every other month since they got married and I really don't know what to believe this time round.  However, regardless of whether or not they're going to have a baby soon, I think everyone can agree that these two are perfect together in almost every way.  They look adorable together but even more importantly, they sound great together.

I have to say, I'm surprised by how few Blake/Miranda duets there are considering that they must have jam sessions, like, all the time.  Now, of course I'm not saying that they never sing together.  They'll sing background vocals on each other's songs, like Miranda does for Blake in his cover of "Home" and who could forget their great live performance of "You're the Reason God Made Oklahoma" way back in 2005.  But they've only officially recorded two duets in the studio and, unsurprisingly, they are fantastic!

They recorded "Draggin' The River" in 2010 (before they were married) for Blake's album "All About Tonight", a very light-hearted song that is slightly reminiscent to Johnny Cash and June Carter's playful duet,  "Long-Legged Guitar Pickin' Man".  But the real magic comes from their 2011 performance of "Better in the Long Run".  It's one of those songs that you want to listen to again as soon as you finish it the first time and their voices blend perfectly.  Surprisingly, neither Blake nor Miranda, two exceptional songwriters, didn't write the song.  It was actually written by Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum (yes, the attractive one) and Ashley Monroe of the Pistol Annies (ADD Moment:  I would LOVE to hear Charles and Ashely sing this song together) .  Regardless of who wrote it, Blake and Miranda make it their own and pour their hearts into this song.  Hmmm could this possibly be Miranda's next single??