Reflecting On: Jason Boland & The Stragglers – Rancho Alto

Jason Boland & the Stragglers is one of the best bands making country today. Their instrumentation, lyrics, and vocals all combine to make the perfect package. When thinking of which album I wanted to discuss by this band, I debated between this one and their 2013 release, Dark and Dirty Mile. I settled for Rancho Alto because it has the first song I ever heard by the band on it, and it’s the first album I ever bought from these guys.

Release Date: 2011

Style: Traditional Country

People Who Might Like This Album: Those who love their country music with great singing, lyrics, and instrumentation, Fans of the Turnpike Troubadours, Fans of anything authentically country

Standout Tracks: “Down Here in the Hole,” “False Accuser’s Lament,” “Woody’s Road”

The album starts off with one of the band’s best songs, “Down Here In the Hole”. It details the day of a miner who gets trapped in the mine. The line that gets to me the most is “The sun never shines down here in the hole”. The man in the song is mining because he needs the money. The track ends when he gets trapped in the mine, and nobody knows if he fell or was shoved. The instrumentation is stellar with some great fiddle play. It’s a faster song, too, which you wouldn’t expect with this subject matter.

Another favorite from this album is “False Accuser’s Lament”. The song tells the story of a man who lied about seeing someone commit a murder. The person telling the story doesn’t know if the man he accused actually did it, but he wanted the money for a new plow and to keep his land. The banker offered to pay the man in the song, along with some others, to say that they’d seen a specific man shoot someone. This is because the banker’s wife had cheated on him with the person the banker wanted imprisoned for committing murder. In the end, the false accuser loses everything to the banker due to bad weather destroying his crops. . This is yet another story song that I think is fabulous. The steel guitar and fiddle make this song stand out instrumentally, too. This track is just so layered, because you have the jealous banker bribing poor people to say the man his wife cheated on him with had committed murder. You also have the main character in the song detailing his remorse and how he keeps seeing the accused man be killed. It’s just fantastic.

“Woody’s Road” is the first song I ever heard by Jason Boland & the Stragglers. Upon doing some research, I discovered that the song was actually written by Bob Childers, but I have not heard any other version. I love this song. It’s a tribute to Woody Guthrie. The man in the song tries to follow Woody Guthrie’s example of being a friend to everyone, rambling, and doing his best to help everyone. I confess, I do not know all that much about Woody Guthrie, but this song certainly has always made me curious about him. Adding to the lyrics is the stellar instrumental talent of the Stragglers, and the great melody, and I was hooked.

The rest of the album is good, but these three songs are my favorites. “Woody’s Road” certainly led me to discovering the Stragglers, and I have not regretted it since. They make some of the finest country music being produced today, and I hope everyone reading this will check them out.

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Review – Margo Price – Weakness EP

Rating: 6/10

I will readily admit that I have not listened to Margo Price’s debut album. Despite the buzz around its release, I just never got to it. Therefore, when this new EP came out, I figured I’d give it a shot since it’s only four songs long to see if Margo Price is my kind of singer.

It turns out that I did not have long to wait to see what I thought of her voice, as it was a bit weak on the title track, which is also the EP’s opener. The lyrics aren’t bad, detailing how sometimes her weakness is stronger than she is, and she is overcome by it. As much as I like the lyrics, though, her voice is what brings the song down for me. It seems like she tries overly hard. I do like the fiddle, however.

The second song, “Just Like Love”, has some darker instrumentation, which I liked. The lyrics talk about how love is not the gentle emotion we all think it is, and that we are all the same, as humans. I think Margo Price’s vocals are a bit better here, and I do like the guitar. I just wish her voice had not been so far back in the mix for this one. Combined with the tempo of the song and the way her vocals were mixed, “Just Like Love” felt a bit sleepy.

“Paper Cowboy” is both my most and least favorite song. The lyrics are great as they discuss a man who is all talk and no action. I like all of the little digs she takes at him, too. Where this song loses me, though, is when the track diverges from singing to total instrumental. Said instrumental goes on for about three minutes or so, and I quickly got bored. Her band is quite talented, but I tend to get less excited about songs outside of the classical genre if there are no words.

Lastly, there is “Good Luck (For Ben Eyestone)”. I really like her voice in the chorus of this song. As she references him being up in the sky and hoping he can see through the stars, I am assuming this song is dedicated to someone who has passed away. She hopes he thinks of her where he is. That is definitely a great sentiment, and I like the lyrical content of the song a lot.

Overall, the lyrics for all of the songs are strong, and Margo Price has a really good backing band. I question some of the production choices, as well as the style of singing used on “Weakness”. While Margo Price does have some songs where her vocals are really well-done, I did not love this EP. I listened to it a few days before I wrote this review, and had to go back and re-listen again in preparation to write this. I was surprised by what the songs say, so that just means that it was rather forgettable. I think if you like female-sung country, you should give this a chance to see if Margo Price’s music is your thing.

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Album Review: Tyler Childers–Purgatory

Rating: 8.5/10

If you’ve been living in blissful ignorance of Tyler Childers and his music, I invite you to rectify this, and quickly, so that when he blows up as he rightfully should, you can say you were ahead of the curve and that you knew about this cool eastern Kentucky native before it was cool. I am not claiming to be one of the many people bombarding sites like Saving Country Music asking for updates on Childers for months and years prior to this release; in fact, I had never heard of him either until that voice came belting out of Colter wall’s album on “Fraulein” in May. It’s rare that someone can make such an impression with just a verse, but that killer voice and the unique, sort of raspy, weathered tones and cracks, especially in Tyler’s higher register, made a lasting impression on this listener.

So we come to Purgatory, and while I wouldn’t say there’s one moment absolutely blowing me away on the level of Tyler’s participation in “Fraulein,” this is a really great album. It’s a record of hard living–drinking, smoking, cocaine, women–and the rare, special women that can turn you from such vices. I wouldn’t say it’s thematic throughout, but it does seem like Tyler is on an endless cycle of screwing up, falling in love, and turning back to vices again after the heartbreak or simply because like he says in “Whitehouse Road,” “it’s a damn good feelin’ to run these roads.” The title track seems to link the subject matter somewhat with its lines like “Catholic girl, pray for me, you’re my only hope for heaven.” It seems that Childers is seeking a place in purgatory because he knows he can’t, or won’t, change, but he believes in hell and wants to avoid it. A lot of this album is delivered in a somewhat lighthearted, offhanded manner, but these underlying themes do seem to be running through it, however unintentionally. It’s also very much a Kentucky record, and although universal in theme, there’s a bit of Tyler’s home in the references and in that accent which certainly adds to this album.

The strongest tracks here are the ones that best showcase that raw power and intensity unique to Tyler Childers and his voice. The opener, “I swear (To God”), is the best example, beginning the record in fine fashion with its spirited narrative and details of waking up with a shiner and not knowing “what all happened.” “Whitehouse Road” also captures some of that quality in his voice, and this one is just an all-around great song. On the softer part of the record, “Lady May” stands out, again because it showcases Tyler well, with just an acoustic guitar and his voice. “Honky Tonk Flame” and “Universal Sound” also stand out because they add something personal to the album and together tell the story of Tyler Childers’ love affair with music. “Universal sound” is a bit ironic because it really doesn’t sound like the rest as far as the production, but the heart in it just makes this song, and you believe every word he’s saying. There’s also a line in this one that seems wistful and adds to those underlying tones, as he reflects that when he was young, music was all he needed; now, “I think about the vices I’ve let take me over time,” as if he wishes he still only needed music.

The one thing that holds this record back slightly is the fact that while I genuinely enjoy every song here, and some are even real standouts, there could be even more. As mentioned before, there’s no single moment on this record that would make an impression on me quite like the moment Childers had on the Colter Wall album, even if the entire record is pretty great as a whole. Some of this is just due to playing it safe with the keys; “Tattoos” could be higher, but it’s probably recorded in this key for the sake of the fiddle, which indeed makes the song. “Born Again” could be higher too. It’s that place in his higher register where the part of Tyler Childers that is so wonderfully unique resides, and I just wish we heard it in more moments on this album. It’s as if Tyler Childers has not yet quite recognized his full potential as a vocalist, and/or it wasn’t given enough consideration during production. Other than that, the production is actually quite excellent, and credit to Sturgill Simpson for that, for making it varied and interesting throughout and keeping it true to Tyler and his sound. As far as these aspects, it’s actually one of the best production efforts I’ve heard in 2017. But back to the vocals…it’s a difficult criticism because there’s nothing really wrong with this record at all–in fact, it’s turning out to be one of my personal favorite listens of the year–but it could have been even more, and that only speaks to the full talent of Tyler Childers. It’s a case of an excellent vocalist who sounds like a good one here, and while I probably shouldn’t complain because the independent scene is strapped for even good vocalists at the moment, I can’t help feeling Tyler is selling himself a little short in that department.

So, overall, this is a fine album, and Tyler Childers is a name you need to know. It’s got variety in production, catchy melodies, and great songwriting throughout. It’s a good balance between the more fast-paced stuff and the love ballads, so even though there’s some similarity in theme, none of it runs together, and it makes for an engaging story. The only real problem with this whole thing is that it could have been even better, and that’s a compliment to Childers and a reflection of the standards to which I have held him. Nevertheless, Purgatory will be one of my most played 2017 albums, and he should be very proud of it.

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Album Review: Sara Evans — Words

Rating: 6.5/10

This has proven to be one of the more difficult albums I’ve ever covered here. It’s an album full of great songs–a couple of throwaway tracks that surely didn’t need to be here, but mostly, these are great songs. But lump them all into an album, and the result is a project that runs together, particularly in the back half. The individual songs are greater than the sum of their parts, and this makes it hard to judge.

Words feels highly stereotypical in the fact that it features fourteen female songwriters, a fact which was made much of ahead of this release, and that twelve of these fourteen songs are about love in some form–new love, relationships ending, or the aftermath and rebuilding process afterword. This in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing, and most of the songs are good or at least decent, but it’s the sameness in them which hurts the album as a whole and which only further reinforces the all too familiar stereotype that women only sing and write about love. Again, that’s not bad as it relates to Sara Evans; if Sara wants to sing about love for the majority of this record, then more power to her, but if you’re going to go for similar themes, you have to go for variety in production, and other than a couple exceptions, there’s not much variety in this area either. add in a couple of songs about something else, and the true greatness in some of these tracks would have only shone more brightly.

But let’s talk about the songs themselves for a moment because a few do manage to separate themselves from the bunch anyway and stand out as very nice additions to Sara Evans’ discography. The front of the record is the strongest, featuring the more country-leaning opener, “Long Way Down” and the country pop “All the Love You Left Me,” both very nice heartbreak songs. The former takes a more upbeat attitude and features fun instrumentation while the latter sees Sara in a more vulnerable position and showcases one of her best vocal performances here. “Diving in Deep” is probably a little too cheesy for some, but it works well for me; it’s the first of the new love variety and is just catchy as all hell. “Marquee Sign,” at this point on the album, is definitely the weakest, but it seems like an outlier, and four songs in, this record really holds a lot of promise.

Then we get easily the two worst songs of the bunch, “Like the way You Love Me” and “Rain and Fire.” “Like the Way You Love Me” is just a generic piece of filler about how she finally found someone better than all the assholes she’s been with, and “Rain and Fire” is a really obnoxious track about this guy who is supposedly having problems with his girlfriend, and Sara, who just met him tonight–think every bro country song we’ve ever criticized for this–is basically telling him to leave this girl and that she’d be better for him. Honestly, I don’t know why people haven’t made a bigger deal of this because lyrically, it’s like the female, albeit more well-written and decidedly more catchy, version of “Break up with Him.” Yeah, not a fan of this song.

The rest is just sort of mediocre. Here’s where the album runs together and where if there were some breaks in the material, the back half could have been much better. “Make Room at the Bottom” is the most memorable one on this half; this is a simple heartbreak song previously done by Ashley Monroe, and Sara Evans offers a fine version too. “Night Light” is admittedly nothing special lyrically, but the melody is just really beautiful, and I find myself coming back to this one simply for the sound of it. “I Need a River” does provide a break in the material, and it’s also more country-sounding, so you would think I would love it, but it’s just sort of decent for me. I do appreciate its message about getting back to the simpler things in life and the much-needed diversion from love songs. The other break comes in “Letting You Go,” a personal song about watching her son grow up, but honestly, the reference to her song “Born to Fly” here just ruins this song for me. It feels too calculated. “I Don’t trust Myself” features some truly cool verses, as one thing leads to another in Sara’s effort to avoid thinking about an ex, but the chorus just repeats the title line, so it feels anticlimactic. Evans gives a great vocal performance on “I want You,” but again, it’s underdeveloped lyrically. The title track is a decent heartbreak song, but by the eleventh track, I’ve already heard this quite enough, and other songs have done it so much better. All these songs, though, with the exception of “Letting You Go,” would have had more potential if they weren’t lumped together, and indeed do sound better on their own.

Overall, the only really bad songs here are “Like the Way You Love Me,” “Rain and Fire,” and “Letting You Go.” And many people will like the last one, it’s just ruined for me. There are a lot of really great songs here, and if there had been more variety, they would have stood out more. There are some that manage to stand out anyway, particularly near the front of the record. But the songs are better than the album as a whole, and although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this record, I’d certainly check out the songs and maybe pick out a few. I don’t normally recommend cherry-picking–that’s reserved for Memorable Songs–but this album is the perfect example of a group of songs that will sound better in playlists than all together.

Good songs, mediocre album.

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Review: Justin Payne’s Coal Camp EP, aka a Love Letter to West Virginia

Rating: 9/10

EP’s are second-class projects. They are largely ignored by the media and by fans, and why release one when you could just wait until you have enough songs and money to release a full-length album? All arguments that have been leveled, and fairly, at EP’s over the years, especially lately when the format is on the rise, and the convention seems to be to release a four-song EP, only to have those same songs be part of a full album released a few months later.

But EP’s have their place in music, and sometimes the format can even work better than a full-length record. Occasionally, they can tell a cohesive, gripping story in a few songs that might run together into a pretty boring 10-track affair. Justin Payne (also known some as Justin Dean Payne) and his 6-track, 24-minute love letter to the coal region of West Virginia give us a perfect example of what a great EP means.

A coal miner from Boone County, West Virginia, Justin Payne pours out the love for his homeland and the empathy for the people of the region all over this record. It’s a journey from childhood memories in the opener, “Growin’ Old,” with its details of secondhand clothes and picking up cans, to the haunting “Miner’s Soul,” laden with steel guitar and told from the point of view of a miner now at peace in heaven trying to communicate that message to his family. WE get a painful sense of the toll that mining life takes on families in “Piece of my Life” and “make a Little Time,” but the former also rejects the idea of leaving West Virginia for Nashville because it isn’t home. Payne sings, “that town don’t understand me, no, they don’t like my kind. They don’t care about the truth down there, and they don’t deserve a piece of my life.” It seems that despite all the hardships that come with life in this region, leaving is not an option; the whole thing can be summed up in the line “my heart and love, they lie tucked down between two hills” in the song “Holler Home.”

The production here is simple and sparse but still quite varied. The opener is a little more upbeat, and the closer, “The Mines,” serves as a lighthearted break from the rest of the album with its hand-clapping and catchy melodies. IN fact, I’d have probably switched the places of this one and “Miner’s Soul,” so there would be a breath of fresh air in the middle of the record, and so the album could have gone from childhood to death and also ended with the best song. As mentioned before, “Miner’s Soul” has some incredible steel guitar, and “Holler Home” features some lovely fiddle play. It all keeps Justin Payne and his stories in the forefront as it should, but there’s enough variety in the instrumentation and production to keep it interesting. This is another thing that wouldn’t work as well on a whole album because it would tend to get boring, but as it is, it serves to add another element of cohesiveness and consistency so often hard to achieve on such short projects.

The highest point of this record, though, is something you get just by listening. It’s something indefinable that comes out in the obvious love Justin Payne has for this place and these people. It’s the emotion he breathes into these songs and the way the mine references come from experience. Authenticity does not have to be present to make good music, and you don’t have to be from West Virginia to sing about these things or to appreciate it, but there’s also something irreplaceable about an actual coal miner telling these stories. It’s not because you believe him more, it’s because he believes it, and that comes out in the depth of feeling he puts into his songs. If I heard this entire EP sung by someone else, it wouldn’t be nearly as good–not because that person wasn’t a West Virginian or a coal miner, but because that person could not put the kind of raw pain into these songs that Justin Payne pours into them naturally. And again, this would not be as effective on a longer project; as it is, with 6 songs, you come away from it with a deeper understanding and respect for these people and blown away by Justin’s ability to lay all this out so perfectly and also so concisely.

Don’t overlook this because it’s short. It’s a simple, understated project, but it perfectly captures West Virginia and the coal mining region and immortalizes them in a way that is timeless.

Note: All proceeds from the sale of Coal Camp will go to help local food banks and charities in Justin Payne’s community.

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