Showing posts with label Album Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Album Reviews. Show all posts

Mar 24, 2023

Completely Biased Album Review / Lucero / Should’ve Learned By Now

A disclosure: Lucero is my favorite band. I’ve seen them live somewhere around 14 times. I make sure to always have at least one t-shirt that is new/presentable enough for casual events in life (and a couple of backups). I have considered a tattoo.

Another disclosure: I didn’t like Lucero at first. Never hated them or anything, but I just didn’t ‘get’ them. Lead singer Ben Nichols’ vocals are certainly an acquired taste, and the songs can sound a little samey from a distance. I kept trying though - and around the time of 2003’s That Much Further West, I was suddenly smitten. For good.

A final confession: I’m not so biased that I can’t find fault with the fellas. Their last album, 2021’s When You Found Me did some 70s AM radio rock experimentation that didn’t work for me, and Ben took his vocals to places I’d prefer he hadn’t gone. That said, the songs sound great live. And that’s where the magic of Lucero is truly found. 

I neglected to mention in paragraph 2 that seeing Lucero live for the first time around 2003 was the straw that broke the camel’s back (in a good way). In concert, Lucero is a force of nature. It’s not pretty - the music is a raw blend of country punk midwestern sweaty rock n’ roll. They don’t sound like anything you’d hear on any radio station, even satellite radio. But it’s a rock revival every time they play. 

The crowds are almost as fun to watch as the band. There are dads on their getaway weekend with the boys, there are college punks, there are rockabilly couples complete with a rockabilly baby, there are couples, families, normies, and weirdos. And they all know every word. There are drunks swaying to the beat. There are puffs of vape that you know ain’t nicotine. There’s dancing and screaming at the tops of lungs. And I’ve NEVER seen a fight at a Lucero show. Even if you never come around to liking the band on tape, catch a show some time - you’ll thank me.

Six paragraphs in, we finally get to discussing the new album. Should’ve Learned by Now is Lucero’s best album since Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers. There, I said it. Supposedly this record is a collection of songs not picked for When You Found Me and Among the Ghosts, but it feels like a truer representation of the band than either of those (and I loved Ghosts). It also may be the most accessible thing they’ve ever put out.

“One Last FU” opens the set with the raucousness you expect from Lucero (They are half raucous / half utter sadness), and it’s a sign of things to come. Should’ve Learned By Now leans into the rowdy times and barrooms more than recent releases, and this song covers both. 

Next up is “Macon if We Make It,” which is surely among the band’s catchiest songs ever. The tune is pure dopamine. They don’t play around with building anticipation - here’s your kickass verse, here’s your hooky chorus, here’s your ripping guitars. No teasing, just a slab of rock n’ roll greatness. I can’t wait to hear this one live. 

“She Leads Me” is about as close to pure country music as Lucero will ever get. It’s a hopeful song about love being a restorative journey and destination. It’s a simple song, but the pretty piano accompaniment and the gentle harmonies of the chorus make it a real winner. 

Even my least favorite song upon first listen, “Raining for Weeks” (the only real emotional downer of the album) has revealed itself to be subtly captivating. There’s not a bad song to be found here.

There’s a clear theme of hope, home, and rescue on this album, which is a thousand miles from the sorrow and self-medication of early releases. It’s the hallmark of a great band that they can mature naturally without losing an iota of what makes them special. Lucero never changed for anybody but themselves.

Should’ve Learned By Now is a standout in a career of standouts. Give it a listen. 

Jun 23, 2022

Album Review / The Damn Quails / Clouding Up Your City

By Megan Bledsoe

Almost exactly six years after The Damn Quails announced their indefinite hiatus in June 2016, leaving a hole in the Texas/Red Dirt scene and breaking the hearts of countless fans, they are once again making music. Their triumphant return comes in the form of the new album Clouding up Your City, originally marketed to be a Bryon White solo project but now proudly carrying the name of the Oklahoma-based band. With stories of heartbreak and life on the road and the overarching narrative of White’s own struggles with addiction, which culminated in a stint in rehab during the group’s hiatus, the new record is a welcome return to form for the band and a great showcase of the unique flavor that The Damn Quails bring to the Red Dirt scene.

The themes of battling demons and working to overcome addiction are certainly central to this record. White remarks on “Harm’s Way” that indeed, he might always stay in such a predicament. He laments the fact that the liquor is always on the “highest shelf” on the track of the same name, and almost ruefully reflects that he will continue to imbibe despite the bitter taste and negative consequences. This kind of wry self-deprecation is evident in the title track as well, as White sings about “clouding up your city with our sin.” He comments bitterly and sarcastically on “Everything is Fine” about the perplexing human tendency to echo this platitude when, in reality, our lives are crumbling around us. Perhaps all these sentiments are most succinctly summed up on “Mile by Mile,” wherein White announces, “I hung up my demons, they’re dry on the line, I just never could quite throw them out.” He seems to be accepting the fact that, although he may have overcome his struggles, addiction will always be a part of what has shaped his story and these songs.

Perhaps this is why, on a record so brooding in its thoughts, the production of John Calvin Abney is the album’s true ace in the hole. Abney’s production and the live feel of the project come together to add a warm, welcoming quality to these tracks that belies the often darker tone of the lyrics. White states, of the Quails, “We might be the least country band to ever break out in Texas,” and, while that point can certainly be argued, the truth is that this record does not really align itself with any genre. On the more upbeat selections, like “Someone Else’s city,” one might be tempted to classify this album as heartland rock or Americana. The country influence is certainly there in places also, such as in the hauntingly beautiful harmonica that explodes into prominence in the middle of “Highest Shelf.” The piano playing of Abney delivers a classical elegance to tracks like “”Harm’s Way” and “Mile by Mile.” And then there’s the unique vocal phrasing of Bryon White himself, which adds a definite, and incredibly charming, Celtic flavor to the whole thing. Clouding up Your City is, most accurately, a Damn Quails record, for no other band, in Texas or otherwise, possesses a sound quite like this, and John Calvin Abney was the perfect choice for a producer to bring out and accentuate these strengths.

Clouding up Your City is an album of triumph, both in the overcoming of the struggles of life and in the return of a band plagued by all manner of hardships. There is something intangible and infectious in these songs and in this narrative as a whole that renders the record both captivating and accessible. But more than that, this album is an excellent case for why The Damn Quails are special, and why the Red dirt scene certainly feels more complete now that they have returned to it.

Jun 17, 2022

Album Review / IV & The Strange Band / Southern Circus

By Matthew Martin

I don't think you'd be necessarily at fault for being a bit leery of another generation of the Hank Williams lineage. I mean, we're on the 4th line here. It's worth being suspicious. I was a little put-off by the whole idea. Here we have Hank 3's only son calling himself "IV" and his band "The Strange Band." It feels like this is about to be reductive. And I guess maybe it is to an extent. But, one thing is apparent here - IV has every intention of taking every single part of his lineage and making it his own. He's done a damn fine job of it on his debut album, Southern Circus.

IV himself acknowledges that it was a struggle to shoulder the name while trying to make a name for himself. I think what you get with this album is a complete acknowledgement of that name with some very good jukebox-ready country songs as well taking those country instruments and turning up the distortion on those instruments. When "Stand Your Ground" moves from delicately-picked country folk to more driving rock, it fits. You can start connecting those dots of where he comes. But again, don't think of this album as complete nostalgia. There are stories here in a way that none of the Williams that came before quite have done. Songs with compelling stories fill the album up mostly to the brim. Yeah, there are a few songs that are vessels for the band and that's fine too because the band is tight. The band knows what they're doing. They're bought into this notion that genres don't have to be exclusive. "I'm Gonna Haunt You" is this kind of song. The lyrics are fine, not particularly memorable, but the music is infectious and brooding- and for those of us that listen to country music and heavier rock music, I think sometimes we gravitate to that, so it works for me.

But, then we get to "Malice" and let me tell ya, this is one of the shiners of the album for me. It has a killer fiddle line. It's a song about a couple that hates each other. It's a sad country song. The way IV lets the music breathe life into this song is something more experienced bands are so good at. This song screams of the true potential of this band and this songwriter. I mean, it's still macabre because there's an image to uphold here. But, it works. It's a damn fine country song.

"Drinking Sad" also completely shows what IV can do should he decide to fully embrace the country side of him at some point. Clever wordplay and a crackerjack band take the song to another level. These are songs that deserve more attention than they may receive as people overlook them for the more unique, darker representations of IV's music. Which leads us to the last two songs of the album. 

"Son of Sin" was the first song I heard when IV started making the rounds last year. I was worried this song was going to be the kind of reductive album we were going to get. Now, I say that and it sounds bad. BUT, I like the song and I like the song particularly with the rest of the album. I just felt like it was completely what you'd expect from Hank 3's son. But, this song is high octane and the country tinge to it is fun. It adds flair that completely takes this song to the next level. Which leads us to "Filth." This is the kind of song that I do appreciate more for the music than the lyrics. I could take or leave the lyrics, but the music is fun and it's another version of the high octane country-ish rock music that can be expected of the 3/IV crew. But, the last minute of this song reaches another Doom/Stoner Metal plateau and damn does the band deliver. It starts to make sense how the band can tour with Eyehategod.

There's a lot more that can be said for this album and I think many people will have PLENTY of things to say about it and the lineage. I've probably said too much already. But, listen for yourself. See what you think. Give IV the chance he deserves. He and his band are a strange bunch for sure, but what else would you expect?

Southern Circus is available everywhere today.

Jun 16, 2022

Emotions Run High for Drew Kennedy in Marathon

By Travis Erwin

If the desert had a voice, I can’t help but think it would sound a lot like Drew Kennedy. 

That might come across as pandering, or at the very least obvious given the title and geographical setting of his latest album, but as a longtime fan of Kennedy’s, this is not a new thought for me. I am a native Texan, a windblown son of the Texas Panhandle who now calls Southern California home after forty plus years in the Lone Star State. Drew Kennedy originally hails from Pennsylvania and now proudly calls the Hill Country his home.

I write these facts to highlight the fact that here I am, an expat of sorts writing about an adopted son. Texas might not truly be its own country, but the state is certainly as close to independent as any nation in this land. At least in spirit and my upbringing shapes how I see and react with this world. So long before Kennedy created his side project, Ocotillo, or this new album Marathon, he pulled me in with emotionally laden songs like “Vapor Trails” and “Stars In California.” As a novelist, Drew’s storytelling and strong emotive threads spoke to me. Stuck to me one might say, like the barbed spines of Cholla, so when I moved here and visited Joshua Tree I thought of Graham Parsons first, and Drew Kennedy second because I can hear his music in the rustle of the ocotillo or feel the sheltering emotion of his words as I stand in the meager shade of a Joshua Tree. 

I feel a link to Kennedy as a fellow creative and that is because of the emotional relevance he spins into his words. We are both big, bearded men with softer sides that I would at least like to think is born of empathy for the human condition. So yeah, I’ve long been a fan and still, Marathon just might be Kennedy’s best work to date. Unconventional in both its creation and sound, the heart and life show in unexpected ways. This is not a studio album in that it was recorded in the tiny town of Marathon, Texas, but it very much is a finely crafted and polished product. I won’t spoil the fine work Kennedy did by describing any of the history or wonderment of the area but then again, I don’t need to. It is all there in musical form for you to enjoy.  

Painting in both words and emotions, Drew Kennedy sets the scene with the title track, “Marathon,” and he does so with a calm soothing style that feels like sitting on the porch beside a skilled historian and storyteller. This opening track invites you to sit and listen in to a place that time might not have completely forgot, but has left mostly unscathed. 

In these days of streaming music and a barrage of singles, a finely crafted album is a rarity, but Kennedy and his collaborator Davis Naish have arranged this collection like chapters of a novel. Each track tells an individual story and weaved together they form a larger picture. After setting the scene, “Peace And Quiet” is where this story about broken hearts and the quest for belonging truly begins. “The Hat” then takes our forlorn wanderer and gives him mentor of sorts. No one wants to feel like their best days, or at least final adventures are behind them because we all hope to have a piece of us continue on and this track takes that metaphorical idea and transforms it into the tangible.  

Walt Wilkins very well might be the poet laureate of Texas, so Kennedy’s take of Wilkins’ “Watch It Shine” is one of those pairings that feels like stepping out in the warm sunshine after a long cold night. No matter how dark it has been, letting the warmth hit you reinspires and reinvigorates, and this is a track that I will turn to over and over again, fully expecting more meaning to shone through with each listen. 

The oompah cadence of “West Texas Cloud Appreciation Society” reminded me of vintage Robert Earl Keen blended with Randy Newman. The track left me longing for a dance partner to grab and waltz across the floor. “Hi-Ho Silver” carries a hint of 90s Country but still delivers Kennedy’s intense emotional edge both in the performance and writing. Nostalgia and pop references combine to create the lonesome sensation only remote places can instill, but the track also brings out the unrelenting heart and determination of those who seek out such far-flung places. 

“Hope” is a fragile concept, but one we all need, and this track walks that line in a way that lends credibility to the story with its genuineness. Drew Kennedy is an easy guy to root for. His positivity and compassionate outlook invites you in much in the same way the hopeful character of the track “Lucky” helps us feel the spark of falling in love. 

Few things have been romanticized as much as trains and while “Sunset Special” is less about the glory days of rail travel than it is the emotional side of being excited in love it was inspired by a train that passes through Marathon on its travels back and forth from New Orleans to Los Angeles. The actual train is called The Sunset Limited but how that got mixed up is a story for Kennedy to tell because one of the hallmarks of a Kennedy’s live shows is the storytelling that goes on between offerings.  

“Boots On My Feet” is a song about travelling and how no matter how far you roam, your past goes with you. The spirit of Guy Clark is almost tangible on the final track, “So Far To Go.” The build pulls you along instilling the sense of wisdom shared and knowledge gained. The track does not tie in directly to the album’s overall narrative, but with lyrics about love shared and emotions earned the song is universal enough that few people will even realize the story has ended. That said, one can argue story endings are simply the new beginning to the next story. I hope that is the case because as the story of Drew Kennedy’s “Marathon” closes, I am left eager for the beginning of his next great tale.

Marathon is available everywhere you buy and stream music tomorrow.


Travis Erwin is an author and freelance music critic. His latest novel, THE GOOD FORTUNE OF BAD LUCK was released in May of 2022 and follows other works such as THE FEEDSTORE CHRONICLES, TWISTED ROADS, WAITING ON THE RIVER, and HEMINGWAY. Follow him on twitter @traviserwin

May 26, 2022

Blackberry Smoke’s Stoned: How to do an album of covers

By Kevin Broughton

Atlanta’s Blackberry Smoke released Stoned, an EP of Rolling Stones songs, back in November (as a Record Store Day release) to little fanfare. Under the radar or not, this is the way to do a cover record. 

At least that’s what discriminating Stones fans will think. The first thing that got my attention was the track listing for the seven-cut set; Charlie Starr and the boys put some serious thought into it, and it shows in the distribution: Three songs from Sticky Fingers (“Sway,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” “I Got The Blues”); two from Exile (“All Down The Line,” “Tumbling Dice”); and one each from Beggars Banquet (“Street Fighting Man”) and Some Girls (“Just My Imagination.”) This last is a cover of a cover, a song first made famous by Smokey Robinson – and the best cover the Stones ever did. 

It spans a decade of Stones history (1968-78), with one song each from the Brian Jones and Ron Wood eras, and a supermajority rightly plucked from the band’s golden (a/k/a “Mick Taylor”) age. 

The tributes in song themselves are exquisite in form and true to the Stones’ blues-based vision of rock ‘n’ roll. “All Down The Line” kicks the record off with a faithful sendup of Keith’s stop-go riff for six bars, and the rhythm section falls right into the pocket. “Tumbling Dice” is so true to the original that you can appreciate why Blackberry Smoke is one of the few bands who could credibly pull this off; they’re just that good, top to bottom. (The Black Crowes could have done this once, but Robinsons.)

My favorite cut might be the aforementioned cover/cover, “Just My Imagination,” one I was exposed to as a 15-year-old on the Tattoo You tour. “What the heck,” I thought. “Why is Mick playing a guitar, and how have I never heard this Stones song before?” 

As faithful as the Stones were to Smokey, Blackberry Smoke is to the Stones.  And on “Sway” and one or two other numbers, the rough edge to Starr’s melodic voice adds a hint of Keith to all the vocals. So much in fact I found myself wishing for a cover of “Happy” or “You Got The Silver” or “Before They Make Me Run.” For that matter, Blackberry has but scratched the surface; Stones fans should be reasonably optimistic about a sequel. Because for all the great renditions on this seven-song EP, they can now envision at least twice that many for any follow-up effort(s).


Stoned is available on Spotify, Amazon, etc.

Apr 15, 2022

Album Review / Kaitlin Butts / What Else Can She Do

By Megan Bledsoe

For years now, Kaitlin Butts has been releasing singles, slaying live performances, and generally making us all--or at least those smart enough to pay attention--eagerly anticipate the day when she would at last grace us with her second album. Now that day has finally come, with a record that will hopefully establish Kaitlin Butts as one of the best emerging artists in the Red Dirt scene. Though the seven-song project might seem a little short, especially given the long time between albums, the resulting record tells a complete and powerful story. Short albums like this one work when they have something specific to say, and Kaitlin Butts certainly does, delivering a message of hope and resilience and painting a portrait of those who face the worst that life has to offer and yet somehow prevail.

The women of What Else Can She Do face very different trials. There's the mother in "It Won't Always Be This Way," constantly comforting herself and her child with these words as she tries desperately to think of a way for them to leave her abusive husband. There's the brokenhearted narrator of "Jackson" who laments the fact that she may never get married, while the young wife in "Bored if I Don't" bemoans the fact that she did. The hapless, homesick waitress of the title track dreams of life back home in the country, all the while knowing she will never return. But though their circumstances are different, all of Butts' characters share a common desperation, each of them standing at the various crossroads in their lives and forced to face the consequences of their choices. And Kaitlin Butts displays her talent as a songwriter in that she is able to empathize with each of them individually while simultaneously uniting them all in the bonds of struggle.

The struggle, however, is only half of the picture and only a part of what unites these characters and makes this record cohesive. All of these women also share a common bond of resilience and strength. The narrator of "It Won't Always Be This Way" never stops echoing the words, even though she has no idea how many more times she'll need to repeat them, and eventually, she and her child are able to begin a new life. The young girl in "She's Using" fights to overcome her addiction with the help of supportive family and friends. The narrator of "Jackson" finds new resolve to leave the man who keeps letting her down. Through it all, Kaitlin Butts weaves a powerful tale of hope, instilling the message that we can survive the worst of circumstances and even come out on the other side having been made stronger by the experience.

Country music has historically been for the downtrodden, for the lonely, for all those who can find comfort in a sad story which sounds achingly similar to their own. Kaitlin Butts understands this instinctively and offers us all this comfort, telling the stories of abuse, addiction, heartbreak, and regret with candor, with warmth, and with understanding. But more than that, she cautions that these situations do not define us. She paints a compelling picture of strength and determination, gently reminding us that, although there are "lots of sad stories," as the title track states, our stories do not have to end sadly. Instead we may change our stories, so that, like the tales of these women, ours may become stories of enduring hope and unwavering perseverance.

What Else Can She Do is available today everywhere you purchase or stream music.

Mar 25, 2022

Album Review / William Clark Green / Baker Hotel

By Travis Erwin

William Clark Green has never been an artist that you could confuse with another performer. Some might describe him as quirky, or eccentric as not only is the gravel in his voice a bit different sounding, but often his songwriting takes a unique approach as well. His hit “Ringling Road” certainly covered different ground in creating its unique vibe and there is a good bit of that same spirit on Green’s new album Baker Hotel. The inspiration for the album name comes from an actual hotel with a very intriguing history of its own. 

For years, decades actually, The Baker Hotel has loomed in state of urban decay over the quaint town of Mineral Wells, Texas. Despite opening just after the big stock market crash of 1929, the once glorious resort and spa was a hot destination for both the famous and infamous through the 30s but advances in medicine took the shine off the mineral water that rises from the ground and the hotel was eventually shuttered in 1963. Plans are in the works to renovate and bring the place back to life, but for years the rumored ghosts have been the only occupants of this hulking relic.

Ironic then that the first track on William Clark Green’s homage to the building, is song called “Feel Alive.” The track has a Robert Earl Keen vibe to the rhythm and cadence of the delivery. Green and Keen do not sound all that much alike, but both artists could be called unconventional, and both convey the same kind of raw emotion. This opening track lifted me up the way Keen’s “Feeling Good Again” tends to do and set the tone for an intriguing collection of songs.

The next two tracks, “Gun To Your Head,” and “Give A Damn” deliver the sound WCG is known for and while both are nice tracks with that vocal gravel leading the way, neither song swept me up and away the way Green can when at his best. That said both tracks have heart and passion even while utilizing a structure more like other songs from the genre than some of WCG’s biggest hits.

The fourth track “Anymore” could be my favorite from the album. Coming with a slower build, the track has a vulnerability that feels all the more raw because of WCG’s vocal style. The despair and loneliness and regret comes through in every line. 

The title track, “Baker Hotel” is the kind of quirky song that WCG pulls off so well. The track has a similar vibe as Ringling Road and WCG embraces that fact rather than running from it with the end result almost feeling like a sequel as he invites the ghosts of this iconic landmark to come out and play chicken with the mortals looking for a thrill.    

Every good artist needs a dog song, and while most extol the virtues of man’s so-called best friend, true to his form, Green takes a different approach. This “Dog Song” has a Guy Clark vibe as man and beast compete for the love of a good woman. “All Pot No Chicken” comes next to keep the fun, energetic vibes going. 

“Getting Drunk” is a slower, more tender track looking at the residue of living that party lifestyle and for all of us that have ever had those nights, or a string of such nights, the track will resonate deeply as we examine the reasons, we self-medicate. The track is another contender for my personal favorites from the album. “All You Got” offers more of an in your face take of the party life, by calling the bluff of someone who delivering an ultimatum.

Perhaps the thing that WCG does best is create songs that feel like part of your life. The turn of phrase, the inviting tone, both enriched by their own style of imperfections. These qualities make his music both unique and relatable and that separates William Clark Green from the vast majority of artists out there. “Best Friends” is an ode to those friends we all need in life, and the track feels both nostalgic and heartwarmingly true. “Love To Hate” did not have as much impact for me as other tracks on Baker Hotel, but it does offer a nice straightforward sound and direction and has a more commercial vibe than other tracks on this album, though Green has always transcended the need to offer conventional songs structured to meet radio demands. 

Disappointment is something we all face and often it comes from within as we fail to meet our own expectations. “Leave me Alone” is the conversations we have with ourselves in song form. 

We all have ghosts that plague our relationships and this album, named after a ghost of a building, begins with a track about life and vitality and ends with a track, “Me, Her, and You” about old relationships haunting the present. The arc was not lost on me and I think in a bigger sense the tone and shifting views of the world and ourselves is mirrored with our journey through life as we transition from blind eager enthusiasm to new realties after accruing a few battle scares. 

I enjoyed the symmetry of this dynamic in how it relates to the history of the actual Baker Motel, as well as William Clark Green’s unique sound and journey. The album feels like Texas, but not to the point of excluding those unfamiliar with the state or its ways. The album feels alive, even when, or maybe especially when, -- it dives into the things that haunt our minds and souls.  

Baker Hotel adds to the allure that is William Clark Green and is an album that I expect to go down as one of the year’s best. 


Baker Hotel is out today.

Travis Erwin is a native Texan now living in Southern California. Along with being a passionate fan of good music, Travis is an author or numerous books, including the forthcoming novel, THE GOOD FORTUNE OF BAD LUCK.  Available for preorder now, the novel releases May 17th. You can find Travis on TWITTER - @traviserwin or INSTAGRAM @travis_erwin_writer

Mar 23, 2022

Album Review / Hailey Whitters / Raised

By Megan Bledsoe

When we think of country music and the places from which it is inspired, what comes to mind? Is it the Georgia clay and the Southern stars which have been made such clichés by mainstream artists? Is it Appalachia, whose creeks and coal mines have been brought to life in recent years by the likes of Charles Wesley Godwin and Tyler Childers? Maybe it’s the wild emptiness of west Texas and Oklahoma romanticized by so many names in the Texas and Red Dirt scenes, or even the deserts and canyons depicted by artists like Alice Wallace and Marty Stuart who are striving to keep the “western” part of country and western music alive. But most of us would overlook the Midwest, a place just as “country” as any of the others but often ignored by mainstream and independent artists alike. Hailey Whitters has arrived to rectify this, making a case that the cornfields and sod farms of Iowa can be just as country, and just as romantic, as the mountains of Kentucky and the endless skies of the West.

Whitters' love letter to her hometown of Shueyville, Iowa, and to the Midwesterners who often find themselves left out by even the genre of American music meant to tell the stories of rural people, takes the form of the loosely conceptual album Raised. Raised remains "loosely" conceptual because all of these songs can stand on their own, but taken as an album, they paint a beautiful picture of small-town Midwestern living. Whitters takes the tropes of checklist country and bro country and turns them into thoughtful, nostalgic pieces of commentary on growing up, leaving home, and eventually longing to come back and to embrace a simpler way of life. In the hands of other artists, cornfields and moonlight are the settings for hookups and parties, but in Hailey Whitters' hands, "In a Field Somewhere" illustrates the backdrop for life lessons and marriage proposals. "Boys Back Home" could easily veer into listastic territory celebrating tough guys who drink beer and hang out on tailgates, but instead, Whitters delivers a song about the men who will pull you "out of a ditch or a bar," the ones that helped her to become the person she is today. And a title like "Beer Tastes Better" might give you pause until you hear Whitters' account of catching up with an old friend and recognize the comfort she feels in her hometown, the same comfort so many of us experience when surrounded by the people and places that made us who we are.

Similarly to turning lyrical clichés into meaningful expressions of art, Hailey Whitters also takes a modern country pop sound and expertly demonstrates how the style can be respectful to both country and pop. The songs are built around catchy hooks and infectious melodies, and the album is not without electronic elements. But there are also heavy doses of fiddle and steel all over this record. It's not traditional, but it's the kind of album that pushes the genre forward while still proudly embracing country's roots. It's the type of record we should be recommending to younger listeners to get them properly interested in our beloved country music, the sort of album that showcases the value of pop country for the survival of the  genre, if only it is done right.

Hailey Whitters has achieved several significant accomplishments with the recording and releasing of Raised. Firstly, she has captured the beauty of a land so often forgotten and reminded us that, as she says on "Middle of America," even the most ordinary places are "still something to some folks." Secondly, she has proven that even the most worn-out clichés of mainstream country music can be given new life when they are placed in capable songwriters' hands. She has produced an excellent case for the fact that pop country is not inherently bad and that it can even be artful and inspire something as cinematic as a concept album. Lastly, though the record was made to celebrate the people and places of the Midwest, Hailey Whitters has spoken to us all, delivering a timeless album that perfectly captures the beauty of small towns all across America, the burning desire that so many of us have to leave those little map dots, and the sense of home and belonging which only comes from returning. 

Raised is available now everywhere you stream or purchase music.

Dec 10, 2021

Album Review / Jason Boland & The Stragglers / The Light Saw Me

By Megan Bledsoe

The idea that Jason Boland’s latest album is a concept record about alien abduction will be polarizing to many. It will be met with varying degrees of curiosity, suspicion, and skepticism. There will likely be those whose first inclination is to ignore it, if not because of its December release date, then certainly because of the strange narrative of a cowboy who is abducted by aliens in the 1890’s and transported a century into the future. But to overlook this album would be a disservice to both the listener and to the project itself, for not only has Jason Boland succeeded to pull off something entirely unique to country music with the telling of this story, he has also managed to do so in a remarkably accessible and compelling manner. This album is special both because it dares to tackle these subjects at all and because it is about much more than UFO’s and time travel; rather, this is simply the lens through which our narrator examines the world as he embarks on the existential search for truth and meaning that is common to us all.

As noted in “Transmission Out,” many of us are confronted, at some point in our lives, with the unexplainable. These confrontations can come in the form of religious experiences, visions, or, in our narrator’s case, the life-changing encounter of a mysterious light shining through the trees one night. “I saw the light, but more importantly, the light saw me,” Boland explains in the title track. The narrator is forced to reevaluate his view of the supernatural, and despite his warnings in “A Tornado & the Fool,” no one around him seems to pay attention. Nevertheless, he remains convinced of the things he saw, at once awed and horrified by this new reality, as conveyed in the stirring opener, “Terrifying Nature.”

Our hero, however, is concerned with far more than just convincing us of his encounter with the supernatural. Perhaps most troubling are his observations of modern society. Once he has arrived in the future, he is dismayed to learn that it is not the paradise he had imagined it might be. He comments on the ghosts of people “staring down at their phones” in the atmospheric “Straight Home” and on “Here for You,” he laments the people’s lack of care for the amount of oil they burn. On the same track, he asks himself, “Could humanity be in decline?” The future, it seems, is a lonely, godforsaken place, and this characterization of it by an outsider from the past paints a much starker picture than that which might have been conveyed had Boland chosen to write more directly about these subjects.

Throughout the journey, however, the one thing that seems to remain constant and true, even across the barriers of space and time, is love. The narrator promises that he will always be there for the ones he loves on “Here for You,” as he journeys away from them into the unknown. On “Straight Home,” he is simply looking for a way to reverse this course and return to the world he knew and the people he loves. The cover of Bob Childers’ “Restless Spirits” fits flawlessly into this narrative as well, as if the account of a wandering soul who is strengthened by the vision of his wife in the kitchen so that he can go on another day without her was especially written for the lost, lonesome cowboy of The Light Saw Me.

Sonically, this album contains some of the most engaging material from Jason Boland & the Stragglers in many years. Such a tale as this one is rarely communicated through the medium of country music, but, like all Jason Boland albums, this one is decidedly traditional, with plenty of fiddle and steel to go around. However, The Light Saw Me is also unique in that it captures more of the live feel of a Boland concert, with more extended solos and participation from the Stragglers than what is found on most of their studio albums. The Shooter Jennings influence in the production is evident and welcome as well, adding a darker edge and more of a country rock element to certain tracks. The extended outro of "The Tornado & the Fool” perfectly captures both the chaos of a tornado touching down and the battle raging within our narrator’s mind about the reality of what he has seen. The electric guitar riff on “Terrifying Nature” cannot be described as anything other than catchy, and the atmospheric feel of “Straight Home” enhances the desperation and loneliness conveyed by the lyrics. It is as though Boland, the Stragglers, and Jennings recognized instinctively that in order to draw listeners in, given the subject matter, extra care would need to be taken to ensure the songs were accessible musically, and indeed, that extra care is the intangible thing which elevates this album from a good one to an excellent, rare piece of art.

The endeavor to produce a concept record about alien abduction and time travel is something to be commended in and of itself, and especially the aspiration to render such a record within the scope of country music. Jason Boland & the Stragglers not only succeed in their endeavor, but also manage to deliver an album that is highly accessible, both musically and lyrically. The Light Saw Me is more than the story of a hapless cowboy forcibly being uprooted from his homeland and thrust into an uncertain future; rather, it is the universal, compelling tale of all who have wandered through this life searching for meaning and of the kind of love which, beyond all reason and across oceans of space and time, somehow seems to endure.


The Light Saw Me is available everywhere now.

Nov 12, 2021

Josh Grider’s LONG WAY FROM LAS CRUCES is Pure Texas Enchantment

By Travis Erwin

Las Cruces sits less than thirty miles from Texas in the far South, Central part of New Mexico. Josh Grider hails from Las Cruces and the city, as well as his personal journey is at the heart of his new album, Long Way From Las Cruces. Now firmly rooted as one of the Texas music scenes most talented songwriters, Grider is almost the Jack Johnson of Texas music. Offering heartfelt lyrics that rely on softer emotions and tender observations, he doesn’t need to roll around in beer and smoke or flaunt his Texan-ness to try and be authentic. Grider simply opens his heart and soul and shares what’s inside and brings his music to life with genuine believability. This album, like his career speaks softly but deliberately and for me Grider is the poetic country voice the world needs more of. 

His delivery often reminds me of classic George Strait, except Grider is a far stronger songwriter. Relying on the creation of his own words more than his ability to find great songs to sing, Grider offers an emotional vulnerability that adds an extra depth to his work. I’ve had the pleasure of catching an intimate Grider show and hearing him talk about his music and perform it in a way that makes you the listener feel as if you too lived it. 

In many cases we have indeed lived it, because the writing is often universal, but the opening and title track of this album is more about Grider sharing his own journey than his attempt at uncovering broader truths. The swinging track, “Long Way From Las Cruces,” is a thank you to the life Grider’s been able to enjoy, thanks to his talents and those of us who appreciate them. 

 “Thank God It's Raining” is the type of track that brings those soft engaging emotions out all the more. Smooth and tranquil in ways many musicians run from while trying to entertain the masses, Grider is able to rely on simply and true emotions to keep you on the hook rather than false party narratives that rely more on commotion than emotion to sell the words.  

To that end, “Life's A Party” offers a contradictory feeling that truly makes you stop and think. Given the title, you expect a more raucous arrangement and vibe, but Grider takes a reflective look on that phrase. The vocals on this track certainly have a Strait edge to them, but the twist of a tired old refrain is what makes this track work. 

The slow almost melancholy run continues with “Can You Feel Me Missing You” and again Grider is a master at making you feel the emotion behind his words with an emotive delivery. This track did not quite hook me as well as the others on this album, but so much of music depends where the listener is in their own life so I have no doubt this track will speak more strongly for others than it did me at this time. 

Much of this album owes a nod to the 90s, back when Mainstream Country still had some soul and genuine emotion. “Two Truths And A Lie” certainly feels like a throwback to that era and yet, it doesn’t feel dated or out of step with contemporary ideals and thoughts. This makes it a strong almost timeless track that simply feels like the internal struggle we’ve all faced after a tough breakup. 

Grider shrugs off the sadness with a more up-tempo track about appreciating life. Despite the shift in energy, “Wanting What You Get” is not a party song, but a gratitude song about simply taking the time to enjoy life as it comes rather than fixating on all the things that haven’t gone as planned.  

We live in a world full of conspiracies and way-out-there ideas that seem to have no logical basis. Love has always been just as outlandish, and “I Know I Love You” plays with the comparison of trusting something you can feel, without truly seeing or knowing in the same way we know other things for certain.

The overall arc of Long Way From Las Cruces is one of discovery, admittance, and perhaps resolve as you accept life as it comes. We all tend to fight the current and try hard to hold on to the ideas and goals that are perhaps beyond their expiration date. No, life doesn’t follow the path any of us lays out along the way, but the truly happy and content recognize and adjust as detours come their way. The final track, “Boots On My Feet” really bring that point and this album home. 

Grider’s latest collection bucks the norms of most popular music that relies heavily on raucous feel-good vibes. Long Way From Las Cruces instead offers beauty and truth grounded in reality. This is no easy feat as, we often look to escape reality when being entertained, but Grider took a different approach by sharing his own experiences and takes on life. Much of the album was written in the build toward Grider’s 40th birthday, and the album certainly has this wise reawakening feel that we all go through as we adjust to what life is rather than what we once thought it might be. 

Maybe Long Way From Las Cruces is less about entertaining and more about enlightening, but in the end, the album and Josh Grider manages to accomplish both.  


Long Way From Las Cruces is available today most everywhere you purchase or stream music.

Nov 5, 2021

Album Review / Charles Wesley Godwin / How The Mighty Fall

By Matthew Martin

Once you've heard Charles Wesley Godwin's voice, it's hard to forget. It's immediately recognizable and it carries a weight unlike many of his contemporaries. When I first heard CWG's debut album, Seneca, I was immediately hooked. The album was rich with Appalachian music and storytelling. Godwin's voice singing about coal and mining mishaps felt intimate to him and his background as a West Virginian. I saw him numerous times over the years when he would come to DC. I would tell as many friends as I could about him. These friends were usually also hooked at first listen. Needless to say, I needed more and more and it felt like the new album was going to never come soon enough.

Now, 2 years after his debut, we are getting that follow up, How The Mighty Fall. And let me tell you, it was well worth the wait. On CWG's sophomore effort, we get everything we loved about that debut but amped up. We get an album that only CWG could make for the times. Songs filled with death, love, and hope but with that Appalachian spin. 

The album opens up with a soft, mountain tune about traveling and constantly being on the move. When the fiddle begins, you know this is not the same style of country music you may get out of OK or TX, or TN for that matter. This is Mountain music. This is real Appalachian music. The scratch of the fiddle is an incredible sound that evokes so much emotion. I really appreciate the touch of that fiddle throughout the album. We then get a strong set of songs that includes the lost-love masterpiece, “Jesse.” CWG can make a mountain out of a mole hill. And this song is proof of such. Taking a graffiti covered bridge and turning that on its head to lament lost love and thusly turning a blind eye to that lost love. This is my favorite song on the album. 

The album never lets up from there. The two most surprising songs I found on the album were "Needle Fall Down" and "Cranes of Potter" showing off CWG's ability to craft a beautiful song around tragic topics. "Needle Fall Down" depicts a man at the end of his rope reflecting on the song playing before taking his life. Then we get "Cranes of Potter" about a mad man killing the woman he loved. They are stunningly beautiful songs only made more painful and striking by CWG's powerful voice. It's possible someone with a lesser voice would not be able to pull off "Needle Fall Down" but CWG does so deftly and with grace. 

But, don't be fooled into thinking this is a low-key affair. CWG also has a crackerjack band on this release and they let loose for a few songs that absolutely make me pine to see these songs live (when I'm going back to shows since I have a dang 2 month old now y'all!). "Gas Well,” "Blood Feud,” and "Strong" are blood pumpers. Also, bonus points if you knew who Prefontaine was (I did not...). Again with "Strong" we get that scratched fiddle that sounds like it was made for CWG songs. The lead guitar licks on this one are compelling as well. 

This is the album I was waiting for from CWG. I don't know that he could have followed up his debut with a stronger album. I know this dude is going to be huge. He's got the songwriting chops, the voice, and the backing band to really make a name for himself and he's well on the way to doing so. If you aren't on the bandwagon, hurry up and hop on. Go ahead and buy this album and everything CWG touches. It's all proving to be gold.

How The Mighty Fall is available today everywhere you purchase or stream music.


Related Posts with Thumbnails