Showing posts with label Megan Bledsoe. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Megan Bledsoe. Show all posts

Jan 3, 2022

Megan's Top 11 Albums of 2021

These were counted in our year end poll.

 By Megan Bledsoe

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11. Brandi Carlile—In These Silent Days


10. Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, and Jon Randall—The Marfa Tapes

Perhaps it is only because of these songwriters’ stellar reputations that we are compelled to pay attention to a release like The Marfa Tapes. But the other side of this is that only special artists like these three could actually write and perform an entire album acoustically, with sounds of wind and fire and cows and planes echoing in the background, and manage to hold our attention simply because of the strength of the songs and the raw emotion and boundless charisma present in the delivery. It’s fair to say that anyone else who tried this would likely be ignored, but not many others could accomplish this with the same beauty and grace that Ingram, Lambert, and Randall have, keeping us listening long after the novelty of the approach has worn off and only the songs and performances remain.


9. Cole Chaney—Mercy


8. Carly Pearce—29: Written in Stone

What a joy to see an album like this emerging from Music Row and to watch Carly Pearce’s deserved success. To call Pearce’s divorce record  the best mainstream country album of 2021 would be true but would also be selling the project short; it is simply one of the best country records of the year, no qualifiers. The fact that it came to us from mainstream Nashville only serves to prove that hope still lingers on Sixteenth Avenue.


7. James McMurtry—The Horses and the Hounds

James McMurtry’s songwriting is like that of no other. His prose is vividly rich in detail but composed in such a plainspoken manner that it remains accessible and relatable to us all. There is something uniquely charming about his frankness, something inherently poetic and refreshing in reflecting on all of the world’s hardships and then expressing a problem so mundane as constantly losing one’s glasses. These ruminations constitute some of the best songs of the year, and McMurtry remains one of the most interesting songwriters of his generation.


6. Shane Smith & the Saints—Live from the Desert


5. Margo Cilker—Pohorylle

Margo Cilker’s debut album is a classic case of the sum being better than its parts. There are no lyrical masterpieces and nothing to reinvent the wheel from a musical standpoint. Nevertheless, the simple yet lush arrangements, the production which carefully and thoughtfully enhances each song, Cilker’s excellent capacity for writing melodies and hooks, and the sense of place and general mood surrounding this whole record all come together to make one of the year’s standout albums.


4. Amythyst Kiah—Wary + Strange


3.  The Steel Woods—All of Your Stones


2. Charles Wesley Godwin—How the Mighty Fall

Charles Wesley Godwin, through the poetry of his songs and the haunting qualities of his voice, has managed to set Appalachia to music. If Seneca was a perfect encapsulation of the place, then How the Mighty Fall can be called a perfect encapsulation of the region’s people. More than that, it is a commentary on desperation itself, both the circumstances which lead to it and the various lengths to which one will go when faced with it. Artists are often plagued by the idea of the sophomore slump, but Godwin second album is just as exceptional as his first.


Album of the Year: Jason Boland & the Stragglers—The Light Saw Me

The very audacity of the idea, the concept of making a country record about alien abduction and time travel, is proof enough of the innovation of Jason Boland & the Stragglers and should be applauded. But to pull it off so expertly and to somehow craft a story so universal and compelling is another thing entirely. Somehow, this eccentric album is one of the most accessible, engaging records of Boland’s career and demonstrates that country music can still cover new ground in 2021. Boland & the Stragglers prove that even within the confines of traditional country music, artists can still be creative, original, introspective, and forward-thinking.

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.

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The Light Saw Me is available everywhere now.

Sep 10, 2021

Album Review / RC & The Ambers / Big Country

By Megan Bledsoe


In order to fully understand and appreciate the debut album from RC and the Ambers, one thing must first be firmly established: this is not, nor is it attempting to be, a Turnpike Troubadours record. It is not even akin to the solo album by Kyle Nix, which carried many stylistic similarities to the Troubadours even though the lyrical content was quite different. This album presents a sound and style quite apart from anything yet recorded by either Turnpike or Nix. You won’t find a horn section on any Turnpike record, but the horns are a prominent feature of Big Country. Turnpike albums don’t generally employ zydeco rub boards either, but Amber Watson brings this to the band’s sound and gives the album a unique Cajun flavor. Perhaps RC Edwards himself described this project best when he said: “It was a chance for me and Hank [Early] to get weird and record some songs that I had been playing live.” This idea of “getting weird” must be accepted and embraced by the listener; then the true beauty of Big Country will shine forth.

This album never takes itself too seriously. The title track is an ode to former Oklahoma State University basketball player Bryant Reeves, complete with clips from Reeves’ days on the court. “Oklahoma Beach Body’ is at once a Red Dirt satire of bro country and a fun little number that might have found traction on 90’s country radio. “Drunk High and Loud,” often played live at Turnpike Troubadours shows, is much the same, managing to be fun and catchy without compromising the lyrics or insulting the intelligence of the listener. Even when the record opts for a deeper sentiment, it is in the form of songs like “Astronaut,” wherein RC Edwards muses about being a jigsaw puzzle and his lover being the missing part, and “”Oologah,” in which the heartfelt story of the circumstances surrounding a marriage proposal are offset by the description of the Oklahoma college football team beating “the “ever-livin’ dogshit” out of Missouri State.

But for all its humor and lighter moments, Big Country still captures a few moments of more serious introspection. “Fall out of Love,” first recorded on the Turnpike Troubadours’ self-titled album in 2015, strikes a different chord altogether when Edwards and Watson perform it as a duet. The horns provided by Cory Graves of Vandoliers also serve to add something new to the song. The horns bring a new dimension to the band’s cover of “Blues Man” as well, one of the highlights of the album.



A Turnpike record this is not, but it does bring some of the same  sense of place offered by many Troubadours releases. In addition to the aforementioned Oklahoma Sooners and Oklahoma State Cowboys being featured on this record, the album is sprinkled with references to Tahlequah and to the Cherokee people and captures the kind of charm that Tyler Childers brings to the mountains of Appalachia or that Red Shahan brings to the desolation of west Texas.


In short, Big Country is a unique and enjoyable listen. It is generally a lighthearted affair, and in some ways, this kind of album is exactly what the world needs at the moment. However, there are enough intervals of seriousness to add some weight to the record. With the horns and the zydeco elements, this release carries a sound unlike anything from Turnpike Troubadours and unlike almost anything in the current country space. Big Country is a solid debut from RC and the Ambers, and it will certainly be interesting to see where they will go in the future.

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Big Country is available today everywhere you purchase or stream music. 


Dec 30, 2020

Megan's Favorite Albums of 2020


~Megan Bledsoe

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11. Zephaniah OHora—Listening to the Music

10. Sturgill Simpson—Cuttin’ Grass, Volume 1

As someone who has never really been a Sturgill apologist, this album made me a believer. It is something special to be able to reimagine an entire album’s worth of one’s work at all, let alone with such fresh, engaging results. It takes something even more special to deliver a bluegrass album with nuance and restraint, and Simpson does just that, proving that bluegrass is not always about instrumental prowess, but sometimes about simplicity and emotion.



9. Jaime Wyatt—Neon Cross


8. Tyler Childers—Long Violent History

This record is not just about the title track and its important message; rather, it’s about the eight fiddle tunes leading up to the climax of the album. Childers listed several ways to cling to Southern roots in the accompanying video for the title track, ways to preserve the culture without embracing the South’s racist history. But that speech is not as important as his example itself; this album is Childers cherishing his Southern heritage the right way, by learning old-time fiddle songs and sharing them with an audience who might never have heard them otherwise. It is in this context that the title track and the album itself shine, and this is one of the most important records of the year.




7. Lori McKenna—The Balladeer


6. Caitlin Cannon—The Trash Cannon Album

Caitlin Cannon made one of the most interesting country debuts in recent years with her self-reflective album. As the title states, she leaves no secret hidden, airing all her dirty laundry and that of her family for the sake of the song. But for all its darkness and scandal, everything is good-natured and fun, and this is certainly one of the most entertaining albums of the year.




5. The Steeldrivers—Bad For You


4. Ashley McBryde—Never Will

When people say the state of mainstream country is beyond repair, introduce them to Ashley McBryde. When they say that women only sing about happy endings and heartbreak, introduce them to Ashley McBryde. When they say that you can only make it big in Nashville if you sell out, introduce them to Ashley McBryde. And don’t give McBryde or this record any qualifiers; she is not the best mainstream country artist in 2020, and this is not the best mainstream country album; rather, she is one of the best artists and this is one of the best albums in all of country music this year.




3. Tami Neilson—Chickaboom!


2. American Aquarium—Lamentations


1. Steve Earle—Ghosts of West Virginia

In one of the most politically charged eras of our country’s history, Steve Earle showed tremendous leadership by purposely writing a record for those who don’t share his political beliefs. But that would matter little if the resulting project weren’t stellar. Earle’s love letter to West Virginia and tribute to those who died in the Upper Big Branch mine is thoughtful and timeless, evoking the beauty of Appalachia and the spirit of its people, simultaneously highlighting the hardship and hope that runs through these dark mountains. This record has been criminally overlooked, and this is your chance to rectify that injustice.


Oct 23, 2020

Album Review / Stephanie Lambring / Autonomy

By Megan Bledsoe


"Everything is a little less worse when someone sees you like a person.” This line from the eighth track of Stephanie Lambring’s debut album tells the record’s whole story. Appropriately titled Autonomy, the album is defined by a sense of independence, the right of Lambring and her characters to tell their own unique stories and the acceptance of responsibility for their own actions and opinions. Lambring gives a voice to the downtrodden and forgotten throughout this record, the least of these who rarely see their stories told, even in country and Americana music where heartache and loneliness can be eased by a mournful melody and the knowledge that someone else has endured the same pain. These are the tales of outcasts, of the misunderstood and ignored, of those who long to just be seen as people. Stephanie Lambring sees them, and she has arrived to empathize with them and show compassion, and through her words, to help us see them also.


Empathy is what sets this album apart and makes these songs resonate. Social commentary in music only works if the artist can not only look out at the world, but can also see within and be vulnerable. Lambring gets this exactly right by opening the album with her most personal songs, describing her shortcomings in detail on “Daddy’s Disappointment” and singing the painful story of her lifelong desire to be "pretty” on the track of the same name. “Pretty” reflects a struggle that so many women and girls go through and never completely get over, and this song does a great job of sending an encouraging message without resorting to empty platitudes and clich├ęs about how we are all perfect.


Even when she’s not telling her own story, Lambring’s relentless attention to detail brings these characters to life and provides vivid illustrations. In “Mr. Wonderful,” she expertly explains how a woman can get caught up in an abusive relationship, from the beginning where she’s swept off her feet to the times he makes her feel guilty for wanting a night out with friends to the troubling dream she’s been having in which she’s on the couch with his hand over her mouth. Everything is a gradual process, until the woman is trapped in a reality she can’t escape and left wondering whether she’s partly to blame. On “Birdsong Hollow,” Lambring documents the last moments of a man’s life before he commits suicide, even down to him taking out the recycling. There is neither judgment of his decision nor of the parents who lost him, just a quiet reflection to remind us of the internal struggles faced by those around us which we often overlook. “Old Folks Home” might be the most heartbreakingly beautiful song here, as we learn about three residents who came here for different reasons, all feeling lost and forgotten by the world. Now they are alone in “God’s waiting room,” as people all around them keep asking when they’ll get to go home and then eventually stop asking when they realize the awful truth. It is here where that defining lyric of the record is found, where Lambring expresses their common desire to just be treated like people once again.





For all the heartbreak, however, somehow there is hope in these stories. Albums like this one can sometimes be a depressing listen and beg for a moment of levity. And indeed, “Fine” does add a lighter touch to this project to counter this concern. But even aside from this, the album is far from depressing. It is less about the circumstances of these characters and more about the fact that Stephanie Lambring recognizes them as people and values their stories, and as she so eloquently puts it, this makes everything a little less worse.


It’s that intangible desire for autonomy which makes this record universal and compelling. Maybe we have never been sent to a camp to correct our behavior like the gay teenager in “Joy of Jesus.” Maybe we have never been left in a nursing home and stripped of our dignity. Maybe we have never known what it is to be  trapped in the bonds of an abusive relationship. But we all share the same need and desire to be seen as people, and too often we lose sight of this when it comes to others. Stephanie Lambring gives us a gentle reminder here through her songs and challenges us all to live with a little more love and understanding in our hearts.


Autonomy is available today everywhere, including Stephanie’s website.


Aug 28, 2020

Album Review / Zephaniah OHora / Listening to the Music

By Megan Bledsoe

Music Row is rife with country artists either obsessed with proving their Southern street cred or lamenting the restrictive boundaries of country music and forsaking their musical roots in the name of evolution. Across town in east Nashville, the Americana world has been flooded in recent years with musicians and songwriters who are more concerned with making records that sound old rather than records that sound timeless. And all across the country, more and more artists are taking political stances which are alienating their audiences rather than seeking to speak to us all and change hearts through artistic expression. Somehow, Zephaniah OHora manages to be the antithesis of all of this at once, the cure for every issue plaguing country music in 2020. This record comes out of New York City, and yet it’s more country and more authentic than the majority of the music coming from Nashville. And OHora is not looking to divide, but rather is proud of being "an all American singer,” as he announces on the track of the same name. For so many reasons, this is the album we desperately need in this moment.

It’s hard to believe this really came out in 2020. Whereas OHora’s first album felt like it came straight out of the 1960’s countrypolitan era, this one feels a bit more reminiscent of a few years later, mixing the best of both the Bakersfield and Nashville sounds. The writing and in some cases the vocal delivery recall vintage Merle Haggard, and a song like “Black & Blue” could have been a long-lost Merle album cut. Yet the production is clean and polished, and although the songs could have been written fifty years ago, the recordings are stellar, thoroughly denouncing the idea that purposely producing a record poorly somehow adds authenticity or quality to the project.



The obvious concern when writing and recording within these boundaries and when trying to perfect the classic country style is that the songs may feel more like an interpretation of the style rather than a true representation of the artist and revitalization of the sound within a modern context. But Zephaniah OHora does a nice job keeping these songs relevant to the modern ear. The best example of this and indeed the album’s greatest strength lies in a trio of tracks in the heart of the record. “All American Singer,” as mentioned above, takes the radical position of taking no political position, but rather seeking to unite all people through the music. Some may say this is OHora choosing to "shut up and sing,” as many people on social media have unfairly asked artists to do, and OHora himself says that he’ll get "back behind the guitar” rather than on a soapbox. But this song is more about Zephaniah OHora making the choice to reach out to all people and recognizing music’s power to do so. This is further evidenced in the next song, the albums title track, as he declares that in a time of "evil that plagues the earth, it’s hard to find anything of worth” and that music is his escape from all the pain of this world. We can all certainly relate to these sentiments, as well as those expressed in the next track, “Living Too Long,” wherein OHora reflects on the times changing and local bars shutting down. Regardless of our backgrounds or political stripes, we can all understand this uncertainty, particularly this year. Life is hard, and we all have days where we feel like we’ve been living too long. Music, and especially country music, is unique in its ability to speak to us and sustain us through these times of trouble, and as the album’s title suggests, this is what OHora is seeking to accomplish with this record, and in so doing, he makes these songs and these ideas as relevant and important in 2020 as they would have been in 1970.

The one thing missing from OHora’s excellent debut album was a bit more variety in tempo, and this record provides that. This album embraces a little more of the Bakersfield flavor, and that is certainly an asset. “Black & Blue” and “Living Too Long” are instantly replayable, lively numbers that add an intangible dose of color to the album, as well as another dimension for listeners who may prefer this style over the smoother countrypolitan sound. It will be interesting to see if Zephaniah explores this sound further in the future.

Listening to the Music is a refreshing record on several levels. For one, its incredible to hear something this country being released in 2020. This is not country rock or country pop or Americana or Red Dirt; it’s just stone cold traditional country—and credit to a guy from New York to be the one to show us all what it means to stay true to your roots and not abandon the traditional sound on subsequent projects. This album knows exactly what it is and pretends to be nothing else, and this is a beautiful thing. But beyond all that, it’s just simply a fine album. The production is flawless, and the songwriting is strong. In a world of turmoil, Zephaniah OHora quietly reminds us that we still have music, and though everything around us may seem uncertain, music remains unchanging in its ability to bring us escape, unity, and healing.
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Listening to the Music is available today on Bandcamp and everywhere else.

Jul 10, 2020

Album Review / Ray Wylie Hubbard / Co-Starring

By Megan Bledsoe

It’s either a hilarious coincidence or an intentional and profound irony that the first line of this album is: “Don’t get any on you if you go to Nashville.” Certainly that is the concern when our favorite independent artists sign to a mainstream label; we’re all happy they got the recognition they deserved, but we’re hoping Nashville won’t change what made them cool artists in the first place. As bizarre as 2020 has been, it seems almost natural that this year brought about the wildly unusual development that Ray Wylie Hubbard would release an album on Big Machine. The seventy-three-year-old artist has long been deserving of more of an audience, but the alliance between Hubbard and the label that produced Thomas Rhett and Florida Georgia Line was one none of us saw coming. It’s not the first time Scott Borchetta has signed an unexpected artist, but this is no doubt the farthest into left field he has yet ventured, and the coolest thing about this partnership is that it has culminated in Co-Starring, a Ray Wylie album that is better and more infused with life than his  recent records.

There’s an energy in these songs and in Hubbard himself that wasn’t as present on his last couple of albums. The hooks and melodies are more infectious, the material is generally more lighthearted, and the parade of cool artists who contributed to the album all did their part to enhance these tracks. Perhaps most importantly, Ray Wylie is clearly having a blast with every line and guitar lick, and that vibrancy shines through and brings the album the life so often lacking on Americana albums these days. All of these factors serve to give these songs lots of replay value, and ultimately, that mileage is what matters most; it matters little how deep and profound a song is on first listen if you’re not compelled to listen to that song months and years later.


There is no crown jewel of the album; rather, Co-Starring has three. “Rock Gods,” featuring Aaron Lee Tasjan, certainly hits the hardest of the three, as Hubbard sings with sorrow about Route 91, Tom Petty’s death, and the brokenness and sadness permeating every corner of our world today. The opener, “Bad Trick,” featuring Ringo Starr, Don Was, Joe Walsh, and Chris Robinson, with its many great observations and little pieces of advice like the line about Nashville, remains the most infectious track on the album. “Drink Till I See Double,” featuring Paula Nelson and Elizabeth Cook, claims the honor of having the most brilliant hook, with “I’m gonna drink till I see double, and take one of you home.” This one is also easily the most stone cold country, for all you strict traditionalists out there.

It’s exciting to see Ray Wylie Hubbard getting his just due and to see such a rootsy album being released and promoted by a label like Big Machine. But the greatest aspect of it all is that Ray Wylie Hubbard didn’t get any on him when he went to Nashville, and hopefully, this record will see him enjoying even more of the recognition and success he has always deserved.

Co-Starring is available today everywhere.

Jun 26, 2020

Album Review / Kyle Nix / Lightning on the Mountain & Other Short Stories

By Megan Bledsoe

In these divisive and uncertain times, one thing we can all agree on is our collective longing for the triumphant return of the Turnpike Troubadours. In fact, the world has seemed to spin more and more out of control ever since that fateful day in May 2019 when the most beloved band in all of independent (country) music announced their indefinite hiatus. Their departure left a hole in the hearts of many and an even bigger chasm in the world of live music, where no band could quite capture their magic. And then, nearly a year later, Turnpike fiddle player Kyle Nix came barreling down the mountain to ease that ache in our hearts, with cases of bootlegged liquor and the promise of a debut record on the way. The backing band would be none other than the Troubadours themselves, and indeed, this album gives us our Turnpike fix in terms of sonic consideration, especially when it comes to the heavy doses of fiddle applied all over this project as one would expect. But more importantly, this is not a Turnpike album, and Kyle Nix makes a case for himself here as not just a fantastic fiddle player, but also a singer and songwriter in his own right, with plenty of stories to tell and a compelling voice to deliver them.

Inspired by his love for Ennio Morricone and spaghetti westerns, Nix set out to make a record with a front cover and back cover, played out in two instrumental numbers, with a collection of stories in between. It’s a concept record, yes, but instead of one overarching tale, this feels like a group of highly developed, sometimes loosely interwoven episodes, more like something musically equivalent to Pulp Fiction than to a spaghetti western. Sometimes these stories feel extremely personal to Nix, like the album’s second track, “Manifesto,” where he sings of occasionally feeling like his accomplishments are nothing compared with those of a grandfather who fought the Nazis and a father who served in Vietnam; ultimately, he comes to recognize their sacrifices as helping to allow him to choose his own path as a musician and songwriter. More often than not, however, these tales are of other characters and events, little snapshots into these people’s lives written down in order to tell us a story and to convey something to us about the human condition.

The commonality in all of these songs is how intricately crafted they are, how each story is brimming with little details that help us to relate to these characters. It’s a seventeen-track opus, and yet none of these selections are underdeveloped; nothing could be called filler. “Woman of Steel” is such a simple song on the surface, merely painting the picture of a man in a once happy marriage who has now found himself living with the "woman of steel.” But this song is so much more poignant as each detail is revealed, from the family coming into the house in fours and fives for Thanksgiving dinner to the way he tries to touch his wife’s waist in the hallway, only to have her pull away from him in indifference. It’s such an honest picture, drawing the listener in to sympathize with this poor man. Similarly, we are captured by the narrator of “Good Girl Down the Road,” who pines for his best friends wife and has been in love with her since 1991, as he lovingly tells us little things about her like her "dust bowl twang” and her capacity to drink whiskey even while swearing she disapproves of it. The title track elicits such a vivid image when the red-faced man lights everything with his cigar that we can certainly see why Billy wants to take his revenge, or as Billy himself so eloquently puts it, why "tonight that son of a bitch is gonna light his cigar with the help of hellfire.” The same vivid imagery can be attributed to all of these episodes; Kyle Nix certainly has a gift for storytelling, and not only that, for telling a story in three or four minutes and yet capturing a specificity and poetry rarely found among even veteran songwriters. Story songs have been so important to country music over the years, and it’s wonderful to see such a natural storyteller picking up the torch.

Sonically, as previously mentioned, this is very much like a Turnpike release. It’s brimming with fiddle, and not just melodic solos and licks, but also rhythmic fiddle helping to drive the beat, as is the case on any Troubadours project. There are plenty of upbeat songs like the title track and “Shelby ‘65” which draw sonic comparisons to Turnpike songs such as “Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead” or “The Winding Stair Mountain Blues,” along with steel-soaked ballads like “Lonesome For You” to appeal to the lovers of a more traditional country sound. A couple of bluegrass numbers find their way onto the record as well, serving to separate Kyle Nix’s solo sound a bit from that of the Troubadours.

Overall, this separation from Turnpike Troubadours is the most important takeaway from this excellent album. It’s great to hear these guys making music together again, but more than that, Kyle Nix has come racing down the mountain to make a name for himself independent of this band. This is not just some side project or lark while Turnpike remains on hiatus; rather, this is the debut record of a fine songwriter with an arsenal of stories to share with us all. And if there is one blessing that has come out of all this uncertainty, it’s that we had the opportunity to discover the tales and talent of Kyle Nix.

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Lightning on the Mountain is available everywhere you consume fine music.

May 28, 2020

Album Review / Steve Earle & The Dukes / Ghosts of West Virginia

 
By Megan Bledsoe

There are few figures in country music as inherently cool as Steve Earle. An influence on many younger country and Americana artists both musically and politically, the alt country legend has made a career out of doing things his own way, everything else be damned. In that spirit, instead of making what he would call a "preaching to the choir album,” amid the extreme political tensions of 2020, he chose to release a record for people who likely didn’t vote the way he did, seeking to use his music to unite us and focus on our common ground. Earle made an album for the twenty-nine miners who lost their lives in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in 2010 because of a coal company’s carelessness and disregard for their safety, and for the families who must wake up without their loved ones every day. Ghosts of West Virginia is a loving ode to that state and to its people, as well as a cry for justice from those forgotten miners and their families.

The album paints a somber picture of Appalachian life right from the opening song, “Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” At once futile and hopeful, this song highlights the duality of feeling defeated and forgotten in this world while also looking forward to heaven with hope and joy. It’s a reminder that nothing in this life is certain and that we can’t take any of it with us when we die, either the happiness or the sorrow we found on earth.

The struggle between hope and hopelessness continues throughout the record. They exist side by side and simultaneously. “Time is Never on our Side” is similar to the opener, but this one focuses more on the riddle that is time; it can fly or crawl, and as every moment passes by, we have less of it. The grandfather in “Black Lung” reflects that he knew the day of his first shift in a coal mine that this would be his fate someday, yet in the next breath he declares that "half a life is better than nothing at all,” saying that he wouldn’t have been able to make it without becoming a miner all those years ago. Mining is presented as the only viable option, the lesser of the evils when the other choice is a lifetime of financial hardship and struggling to survive.


Nowhere is this more apparent than in the album closer, “The Mine,” where the narrator is trying to console his partner by saying that things will get better when his brother pulls some strings at the mine where he works and gets this man hired. Upon first listen, it may seem like the album climax comes in “It’s About Blood,” where Steve Earle’s anger is on display in full force as he rails against the coal companies that can so callously allow these things to happen and then call it an accident, and certainly his fury is infectious as the song culminates in the naming of all twenty-nine miners who gave their lives that fateful day. But it’s really here in the quiet end to the record where the most sobering reality lies, that despite lungs full of coal dust and the possibility of disaster, working in the mines is still the dream for this West Virginian, still the only form of hope in this life. This narrator says that if he were going to try and make a life outside the state, he probably would have by now, but he can’t leave the mountains he has loved since he was a child. So he will stay in West Virginia and hope for the day when things will get better, when he will go to work in the mine and be able to provide a better life for his family.

With Ghosts of West Virginia, Steve Earle has made an outstanding, timeless tribute to the people of Appalachia. This is not only a record for the miners who lost their lives at the Upper Big Branch mine but also for the living miners who toil underground each day, for the men who gave their best years to a coal company in exchange for enough money to get by and permanent damage to their lungs, and for all of the forgotten people of West Virginia who find little joy in this world and seek their rest in the hereafter. The album captures all the beauty of this land right along with all of the harshness and hardship, and Steve Earle’s love for this place and these people shines brightly throughout. This will be one of the finest records of 2020 and one of the greatest albums in Steve Earle’s storied discography.


Apr 10, 2020

Album Review / Van Darien / Levee

By Megan Bledsoe

In the overcrowded marketplace of 2020, wading through all the new releases can be an especially daunting task. We have the whole musical landscape at our fingertips from our favorite streaming services, but all these choices can in turn be overwhelming. When it comes to finding cool new artists, it's theoretically easier than ever these days, but everyone has become so used to skipping through everything which doesn't grab them in the first 8.6 seconds that some of the magic of discovering something new and letting it grow on us over time has been lost. In these times, uniqueness and distinction are incredibly important; you will hear this from every judge/coach on every singing reality competition when they are especially taken with an artist: "There's no one quite like you." It's special and exciting when a new artist stands out and immediately captures my attention as both a music fan and reviewer, and such is the case with Van Darien and her full-length debut album, Levee.


For this listener, it was Van Darien’s voice which stood out from the very first line of the opening track, “Ponderosa.” She’s the vocal love child of Stevie Nicks and Tanya Tucker, with all the grit and soul of both of them and some Bonnie Raitt rasps in her higher register for added color. Vocal ability is not always prized in Americana, and it’s refreshing to hear a technically gifted singer who still sounds this raw and unpolished and just plain interesting.

Sonically, this album fits within Americana, but less because of a folk style and more because of the sheer variety of styles from which Van Darien draws here. The previously mentioned “Ponderosa” is rife with steel and acoustic guitar, with an atmospheric, western vibe that makes it seem like the album might be a thoughtful, quiet, mostly country affair. But then we have songs like “Twisted Metal,” one of the album’s most interesting tracks both lyrically and musically, a hard rock anthem about the chaos and danger of being in love with someone even though logic might say it’s not the greatest idea.

In fact, the way Van Darien depicts love as a whole on this album is nothing short of fascinating. “Twisted Metal” has a harsh beauty about it, perfectly describing the way these two feel drawn to each other despite circumstance. “Insanity” reflects a similar emotion, comparing true love to feeling insane and asserting that perhaps it’s better to be alone than in a relationship which feels lukewarm, mundane, or really anything less than completely, gloriously out of control. “The Sparrow & the Sea,” featuring Owen Beverly, might be the highlight of the whole record, as the story of two people who long for each other and yet cannot be together is revealed to us through the illustration of the sparrow who wishes she could swim in the depths an the sea who dreams of joining her in flight. Each can see the other, but neither can reach across the divide. These three selections show Van Darien at her best as a lyricist and always frame love in a bittersweet light, seeming to portray all the complexities and emotions of it all at once, joy and heartache sometimes existing side by side.


This is a strong, interesting debut from Van Darien. She’s a refreshingly unique artist and a special vocalist. A couple of the songs have not quite caught up to her vocal talent, but there are some truly remarkable examples of songwriting here, displaying enormous potential for her. It’s a promising introduction with some standout moments, and Van Darien’s next record could be an absolutely incredible album. For now, Levee is a good one, go enjoy listening to it and discovering a cool new artist along the way.
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Levee is available today on iTunesAmazon, and the other usual spots.

Feb 7, 2020

Album Review / James Steinle / What I Came Here For

By Megan Bledsoe


As a rule, Texas country music comes in two flavors. There’s the thoughtful, introspective, singer/songwriter material being perfected by artists like Jason Eady and Jamie Lin Wilson, full of substance and heart and soaked in fiddle and steel. Then there’s the stuff with less lyrical substance, but no less heart and even more fiddle, from artists like Aaron Watson and Randall King. It’s not too often that a Texas country artist succeeds at both, but this is precisely what we get from James Steinle on his new album, What I Came Here For.

The lyrical standout of this album is undoubtedly the title track, as the narrator muses on what his purpose might be in life, or if he even has one. This song does a nice job of conveying a universal sentiment that we’ve certainly all felt at one time while also painting specific pictures of this mans life instead of broad sentiments that wouldn’t have the same impact.

The songwriting also stands out on “In the Garden,” as this song takes the clever approach of being told from a dead man’s point of view. This man is waiting impatiently for his soul to be set free and lamenting the fact that the world has forgotten him and others, never paying heed, as he notes, to "what’s lying down beneath.” This is such a well-crafted song, and it’s also helped by Steinle’s worn and weathered vocal tones, as are most of these tracks. The ability to write and choose songs to best showcase one’s particular vocal delivery is an underappreciated art, and James Steinle does this excellently well.


To balance out the deep songwriting, there’s some lighter, and frankly, just plain fun, material here. “Back out on the Road” isn’t going to blow anyone away lyrically, but it’s just so infectious, with the rollicking, carefree piano and joyful harmonies. And if the bluesy vibes of “Low & Slow” don’t put a smile on your face, you’ve become completely immune to good music.

That bluesy vibe is what separates Steinle from his Texas country and Red Dirt contemporaries; where Texas generally goes for a hybrid of country and rock, Steinle opts for blending country and blues in a way that really makes this record stand out in the scene. Blues and country have always been intertwined, but these days, we mostly see country blending with pop or rock, and the influence of the blues on country music has largely been lost or ignored. Songs like the aforementioned “Low & Slow” and “Black & White Blues” intrigue me and make me wish more artists would experiment with this type of sound. “Blue Collar Martyr,” a song about a factory worker losing hope in the wake of being replaced by machines, uses the bluesy licks, together with Steinle’s weather-beaten tones to create one of the coolest moments here musically; if you only listen to one track from the album, please make it this one.

Any fan of traditional country and the blues should certainly check this out. The style is such a great blend of the two disciplines. If you’re looking for something hard-hitting lyrically, try the title track. If you’re looking for something to brighten up your day, crank up “Low and Slow.” If you’re just looking for good music, check out the whole great record.


What I Came Here For is available today everywhere.

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