Album Review: The Secret Sisters–You Don’t Own me Anymore

Rating: 7.5/10

It’s no secret that traditional-sounding country has little, and female representation has even less, place in the mainstream today, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the vintage, traditional Secret Sisters lost their major label deal and struggled to get by despite their incredible talent. It’s also been pointed out recently that the mainstream has a noticeable lack of female producers, and it’s not as if there are a ton of them in the independent/Americana world either, so it seems fitting that the Sisters’ latest record, aptly entitled You Don’t Own me Anymore and very much an album of empowerment and freedom from control, would be produced by Brandi Carlile. And for the most part, it’s a great showcase of the Sisters’ vintage sound and undeniable talent.

I use the word “vintage” more than “traditional” because this record harkens back very much to the earliest days in country, and it’s like something you can imagine your grandmother playing and loving. It’s not necessarily reflected in the themes, like the timeless Colter Wall debut, but in the sound and overall mood of the record. It’s a simple album, not relying too much on production to tell these stories but instead playing to the strengths of Laura and Lydia Rogers and allowing their vocals to be the highlight. And indeed, the sisters’ incredible harmonies shine forth as the greatest asset to this whole thing. It’s the dissonance in the beautiful “Carry Me” that adds to the raw emotion, and it’s the reimagining of “Kathy’s song” with harmony that ultimately makes it stand out here despite it being a cover. Although the opener, “Tennessee River runs Low,” is not one of my personal favorites, there’s no denying the fact that it’s a vocal masterpiece, showing off all kinds of crazy chords and harmonies and just being generally impressive.

The songwriting is another strength of this record. It’s definitely an album of empowerment, as embodied in the title track and the mournful “To All the Girls Who Cry,” featuring some nice piano and those excellent harmonies. Sometimes it seems directed at a controlling lover, like in the more upbeat “He’s Fine” or in the painfully honest “The Damage.” It’s probably also referring to their struggles in the music business, and the powerful thing is that even though the record is called You Don’t Own me Anymore, this person and/or entity that once owned them has obviously left an incredible, even irreparable mark. It’s a triumphant title, but it’s not a happy album; in fact, except for occasional fun breaks like the ode to Alabama entitled “King Cotton,” it’s a melancholy, sorrowful affair. But still, it brings comfort and healing in a way that only these types of albums, borne of struggle and filled with empathy, can. A song like “To All the Girls Who Cry” only works when you understand that they’ve done their fair share of crying themselves, and that sense of empathy permeating this record is what makes it so relatable.

It’s no secret that this album is great from a technical and critical standpoint, so why the 7.5 rating? Well, as a music fan, it honestly could have used some more energy, particularly in the back half. Sometimes the reliance on the vocal ability of the secret Sisters goes a bit too far. The vintage sound renders some of these tracks almost classical in nature; in fact, one of the best examples of that is the previously mentioned and lyrically beautiful “To All the Girls Who Cry.” As I said, it’s an album that played to the strengths of Laura and Lydia Rogers–credit to Brandi Carlile for that–and it’s quite simple. That’s both the best quality and the thing that ultimately holds it back slightly. Their talent is obvious throughout, but it’s stuff like “Carry Me,” “King Cotton,” and “He’s Fine” that will hold up better because their harmonies are simpler. Having said that, this record is one that grows on you with time, and as you start to dig further than the outstanding harmonies and really absorb the lyrics, you begin to uncover more of the underlying genius in the album. So, it’s a 7.5 for now, but that rating will probably increase with time.

Beautifully sung, painfully honest album. It may not be for everyone because of its vintage nature and a slight lack of energy, but it’s certainly worth your time, and after a few listens, you might just find it working its way into your heart like I did.

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Album Review: Crystal Bowersox–Alive

Rating: 8/10

Well, I’ve never covered a live album before, but there’s a first time for everything, and the latest record from Crystal Bowersox is certainly a fine place to start. This is one of those times that I’m so thankful for this platform because I get to share cool discoveries like this album that people might not know about. Recorded at the Kitchen Sink Studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for sixty fans over the course of three shows, this isn’t your typical live album; it’s got some material previously recorded by Bowersox, but much of the record consists of new songs, and also, it’s an intimate recording rather than a stadium show, and Crystal seems to thrive in this setting.

The album is entitled Alive for obvious reasons, but Crystal has also said it has to do with her current state of mind.

For the first time, “I feel as though I am fully living, now. I am grateful for every waking moment, even the days when the rain seems to pour. I think that often times we forget how precious every gradient layer of life is. If it weren’t for the emotional pain we sometimes must endure, we wouldn’t have a darn clue how to appreciate the joy and fulfillment available to us in between the difficult times. Learning to live with an open heart is only terrifying if one is unwilling to see the valuable lessons that despair and darkness have to offer. I want to feel it all. To me, that is what it means to be alive.

And that joy in being alive and feeling it all comes out all over this record. Sometimes, it’s in songs themselves, like “Dead Weight,” where Crystal advises her son to let go of the trouble and doubt weighing him down, or “NO Mistake,” where she sings about making bad choices in her life but knowing that her son was not a mistake and was meant to be here. This one, with its unflinching details about the town saying she was drunk and being asked by her ex to have an abortion, is one of the highlights of the whole thing. Sometimes, the “alive” feeling just comes out in Crystal’s interaction with the audience; she tells them all about her love for sweatpants and bacon before the fun, relaxing “Staycation,” asks them “who’s here on a date?” and lets them know that “married dates count people” before launching into the simple, sweet love song “Mine all Mine,” and later says, “Life is short, and so am I.” It’s these little reflective moments that add to the songs to express so well the contentment Crystal Bowersox is feeling and which ultimately give the album a unique touch that wouldn’t be present in the studio.

But being alive also comes with pain, as Crystal Bowersox points out in the quote above. The acoustic songs “Marlboro Man” and “Let me Walk Away” come together in the heart of the album to best illustrate this side of life. The former was written for a friend going through a painful breakup who considered ending her life, and the latter, Crystal’s personal favorite, is another breakup song, this one more specific in nature as the narrator reflects on the end of a relationship after “there was once a time I thought that I would be your bride.” I should point out that perhaps the greatest asset to this entire album is the power and emotional expression in Crystal’s voice, and her uncanny ability to draw you in while also singing the hell out of a song technically is best displayed here. Incidentally, for the strict traditionalists, these two make the most country moment on the record as well. Crystal’s voice and songs range from country to pop to soul, and she executes it all very well, so I don’t really want to focus too much on that, but if it’s country you’re seeking, do start with these two.

There’s also a side to being a live and feeling it all that comes with understanding the consequences. That’s best expressed in the excellent, soulful opener, “The Ride,” during which Bowersox sings about knowingly going after a man who ended up being trouble. Her mom warned her against him, but the woman in the song just wanted to experience it all; the cool part of this is that she’s fully aware it’s not the best decision, but she’s ready to face that head-on, saying that she “bought that ticket,” so she’ll “ride that ride.” This song is really about the consequences of one night, but we also have “Now That You’re Gone” later on the album which seems to be a more reflective, relationship-oriented companion to this one as Bowersox sings about a relationship that went wrong and calls it “the face of my regret.” There’s also some of that in the aforementioned “Marlboro Man,” as Crystal sings, with all the regret and pain of the song captured in one line, “he could be well worth your broken heart, but it won’t kill you if you don’t start.”

This album does a great job exploring what it means to be alive and experience all the joy and pain that life has to offer. Crystal Bowersox has clearly reached a place of contentment in her life, and her decision to record this live serves all the more to try to pass that contentment on to her listeners. Spend time with your family on a “staycation” eating bacon and sitting around in sweatpants. Look for someone who loves you like the one described in “He Calls me Angel,” and love them even if the “cupboards are bare” like in “Mine All Mine.” Look for that, but learn to live independently like the bus driver from American Idol that Crystal sings about in “Arlene.” Make some mistakes like the woman in “The Ride” and let go of your “dead weight,” but understand the blessings in life like Crystal advises us in “NO Mistake.” Mourn when the time is right, like the narrator of “Let me Walk away.” But even then, and always, sing; like the best song on the album says, “even the bird with a broken wing sings from the ground.” And yeah, I purposely didn’t mention that one before because not only is “A Broken wing” the best song, it’s also the thesis of this whole thing. And that’s why, even though it’s not a perfect album, Alive is such a special one. I think it will fly under the radar for a lot of people because it’s a live album, but that would be a shame because it’s a truly wonderful experience, and the idea to record it in this way only serves to add to its beauty. It’s not just an album recorded live, it’s an album about being alive and living in the moment, captured in a moment in time between Crystal Bowersox and an audience, and shared with you so that maybe you could take something from it and experience the same joy in living that she herself has found.

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Reflecting on: Two Years at Country Exclusive

Hey y’all, we’re two!

It was suggested to me that I write a reflection on my time here since today is officially our two-year anniversary. I don’t really know if it counts since I wasn’t writing regularly for much of 2016, but we’re going to say it does. And now, I’ve written so many reviews and reflections and articles without effort, but I can’t think what to say here for the life of me.

It’s not because I have nothing to say, it’s because there’s so much to say, and then again, I don’t know just how much of it you all would care to read. I could talk about my most memorable moments running this blog, opportunities like getting to interview Jamie Lin Wilson or meeting Jason Eady. I could talk about how many great artists I’ve discovered and all the awesome friendships and acquaintances Country Exclusive has afforded me, or I could tell you how all the bullshit and drama that comes with running a blog is worth it whenever someone finds a new artist because of something you wrote or suggested to them. I could focus on that, and all of it would be true–but it’s not the whole picture, and ultimately the success and even the life of Country exclusive is not even close to all about me or the things I’ve written and said in the past two years.

So with all that in mind, I’d like to reflect not just on my time, but also on the people who impacted me the most over these past two years. There’s Rob, aka my boyfriend, who after I didn’t write for ages in 2016, convinced me that people actually give a shit what I have to say and that I shouldn’t abandon this like I considered, and who streams Jason Isbell albums with me from 4,500 miles away. There’s Brianna, who has helped my sanity more than she probably knows by coming to write with me and is doing her damnedest to educate me on the music of Loretta Lynn and other such classic country artists about whom she feels my lack of knowledge is a crime against humanity. There’s Jennifer, aka my cousin, who singlehandedly put us on Twitter one day because I am just too lazy to do that.

These next two are probably each going to kill me for mentioning them, but I’m going to anyway because they are both integral to the blog itself and also to my reflection on my time here. First, let me say for anyone who might not know, both Brianna and I are blind. For me personally, it’s a fact that I didn’t try to hide from but that I also didn’t advertise, mainly because I wanted people to read and like or dislike my writing independent of that knowledge. With that in mind, I have to first thank my mom, who did the majority of our pictures until one day in April. And here’s where the reflection about my time comes into it; that one day in April, a publicist inadvertently caused a shit storm by asking me to change a certain picture on here–not a big deal, except that when you have two blind writers, you can’t change pictures right away, and it doesn’t matter if you wrote a thousand great words, that one picture is all that matters to certain people. (Remember the bullshit and drama I mentioned?) I could have probably written a whole post about that incident alone, because it was the day I officially decided I was through caring at all what people thought, and from now on, I’d just be who I am on the blog and take my own advice about honesty and being yourself that I regularly throw around on here. But since I didn’t ever write that post, I’ll just say that the other person who’s going to kill me now is Zack, aka the guy who volunteered to take over our pictures at that point and who takes time to put entertaining captions under them for us and our blind readers. He says continuously, “it’s five minutes of my day,” but those five minutes help tremendously and afford us a flexibility we didn’t have before.

And lastly, but most importantly, there are all of you readers who do actually give a shit what Bri and I have to say, and every person who has ever listened to an album or discovered an artist because of something we wrote. Without you all, we’d be talking to the air, and that part really is worth everything else. So thank you all for making Country Exclusive what it has become, and I look forward to sharing more great music with you!

Single Review: Toby Keith’s “Wacky Tobaccy”

Rating: 0/10

Congratulations country music, you’ve actually produced a stupider song than “Body Like a Back road.”

And before I even talk about this, let’s get two things perfectly clear. One, I don’t hate the majority of Toby Keith’s music like virtually everyone in the country blogging world would expect me to. Yes, he’s produced some terrible songs in his career, especially over the past five years, and he’s made an ass of himself politically and culturally many times over. Still, I own quite a few of his albums, and some of those early songs of his were great. Two, since I’m a more conservative-leaning redneck from Oklahoma–ironically not unlike Toby here–let me stress that I believe marijuana should be legalized medically throughout the country as soon as possible, and I’m not against it recreationally either. I think that should be decided state by state, but that’s more because of my political philosophy about states’ rights than my personal views on pot. I’ll even go so far as to say that if/when we get to vote on that in Oklahoma, I’ll vote for its legalization both medically and recreationally.

Now, I’m glad we got that out of the way because this is the stupidest “marijuana-promoting” song in the history of songs like this. I wrote that in quotes because it does nothing to further marijuana advocacy by reducing smoking weed to this list of stereotypical bullshit compiled here by Toby Keith. OH, and they also have Willie Nelson in the video because we need one more reminder that Willie smokes weed. We get it, you smoke pot–and that goes for all artists wearing this out until it’s become a tired cliché, not just Toby Keith and Willie Nelson. And if you truly want it to be legal, to help cancer patients or hell, even to have a smoke in your yard without consequence, you wouldn’t release this God-awful song to the masses. It does nothing but set back the progress by marijuana advocacy groups and supporters like Nelson himself; the last line is asking if there are any Fritos, of all things. I don’t think it’s making any kind of argument for why we should legalize weed when it portrays marijuana users like this, in the simplest, most stereotypical ways possible.

Look, I get it, Toby Keith, you’re trying to be cool with this song, and ironically it does say something that even ultra-conservative Toby Keith is now releasing stuff like this in support of it. It’s not just Kacey Musgraves and “Follow Your arrow” now; in short, it’s not just a “liberal” thing. But it also strengthens the point that marijuana use has long since been normalized. We’re well past the point of using pot references to be cool or shocking, and this song is just stupid and painfully outdated, not to mention lazily written. One more thing, it’s meant to be funny, and it fails at that too. So not only does it not work as a weed-promoting single, it doesn’t work as a fun novelty song either.

So, to sum it all up, this song sucks. One of the worst songs I’ve heard in 2017 so far.

Written by: Toby Keith, Scotty Emerick

Album Review – Gretchen Wilson – Ready to Get Rowdy

Rating: 8/10

Gretchen Wilson is an artist whose singles I heard on the radio growing up. However, I don’t remember ever listening to one of her full albums. I have always liked her though, since her music tends to be faster and a little bold. What I also appreciate is how unafraid she is to be country, whether that’s in her instrumentation or her references. Sure, she may overuse the term “redneck”, but still. Anyway, when I heard that Gretchen Wilson had released a new album, I was intrigued. It’s been a while since I’ve covered a female artist, and I Was in the mood to listen to something faster and fun. Which all means that I quickly opted to check this album out. I’m quite glad I did so too, since I really like what I heard.

It starts off with a song called “Stacy”. It tells the tale of a woman who always has to be the center of attention for any man that she’s with. The funny part of the lyrics is when Gretchen Wilson says “Ain’t it so sad when girls like you make women like me look bad”. I loved the harmonica on this song. I think it is a very energetic way to open the album. Megan has reviewed the next song “Salt Mines. I won’t elaborate on it, other than to say that I fully agree with Megan’s take on the song. It’s very country both in instrumentation and in the way Gretchen Wilson sings it. The track is describing a woman who would leave her drunken slob of a husband if only the physical aspect of their relationship didn’t go so well. It’s definitely one of my favorites off of the album. I really like “Summertime Town”, too. I love how the imagery of beaches closing up and people driving away is used in the lyrics. It all represents a woman not wanting to be a man’s fling. If he’s not sticking around, she’s not interested.

“Rowdy” isn’t my favorite song on the album. It’s not bad, just not a standout. The lyrics are saying that she’s ready to get rowdy. It references her older songs “Here for the Party” and “Redneck Woman”, which makes me think she’s really saying she’s ready to be back in the music scene. I could be possibly overthinking that, though. “Whiskey and My Bible” is a slower song involving a woman who’s just trying to hold on and keep on living. She uses religion and whiskey to do these things. It’s an emotional song which is nice because it shows off Gretchen Wilson in a rare vulnerable moment, but I just can’t quite connect with it. I know it’s good, but it doesn’t really work for me emotionally. “Bad Feeling” features Kid Rock, which made me really unsure of what to expect. It turned out to be a very soulful song about too people leaving each other. She has a feeling he’s leaving, and he’s saying that nothing she does will make him stick around. I like Gretchen Wilson’s part more than Kid Rock’s, since he really sounds like he’s trying overly hard to sing in the key the song is in.

“Letting Go of Hanging On” has some really nice steel guitar and banjo. The lyrics tell of a woman who is sick of trying to hang on to her relationship. Their bond isn’t that strong anyway, so she’s done trying to make it work. I really like “I Ain’t That Desperate Yet”. She’s unwilling to change anything about herself just to make someone happy, and she refuses to settle for being with just any man. I love the message of this song, and think we could always use more songs like it. “Hard Earned Money” involves people working for a living and getting to spend the money that they make. They work way too hard for said money, but they’re just glad to have the job. In times where work isn’t always available for everyone, I definitely think the song will be relatable to a lot of people.

“Mary Kay & Maybelline” is a very emotional song, and one of my favorites. It starts off describing a woman who remembers how her mother made up her face every day, just to get by. Her father never really showed affection to her mother, and she tried to make herself feel better by hiding her sad and bloodshot eyes. Then it goes on to talk about how if love is going bad, just make up your face so you won’t look like the mess you are on the inside. This is definitely the best vulnerable moment on the whole album. “A Little Loretta” is a fun song. First of all, it references Loretta Lynn. Normally I wouldn’t claim that with such certainty, but one of Loretta Lynn’s first songs is referenced in the lyrics. It’s all about a woman who has had enough of her man going out in bars and cheating on her and now she’s “on the warpath”. It immediately made me think of Loretta Lynn’s song “Your Squaw is on the Warpath”. Of course I like this. The final track, “Big Wood Deck”, is just a fun summertime song. The lyrics tell of sitting on a big wood deck with beer in the sun, and really, who can’t resist a summertime song now when it’s as hot as it is, at least in my part of the world?

Overall, I like this album. Not all the songs are very deep, and honestly, I think I’m about overdue for a more upbeat and fun album like this. The Lyrics aren’t super-vague, and you always know what message Gretchen Wilson is trying to send. “Salt Mines” is way too underrated in my opinion, and more people should check out this album. I, myself, plan to look into Gretchen Wilson’s other music.

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