Album Review: The Whiskey Gentry–Dead Ringer

Rating: 7.5/10

You know what the coolest thing about this little online blogging/music world is? It’s the friends you make through doing this, people that share a common interest and love for the same music. And one of the greatest parts of that has to be all the albums and artists friends and acquaintances of mine have sent me, not in the way of a publicist looking for a review, just as a friend looking to send me something I might like. I’ve got a “never-ending list” of these, especially since getting Twitter, and by all means, keep them coming. Anyway, The Whiskey Gentry here was one of these recommendations sent by a friend who thought I might enjoy them, and yes, they got moved straight to the front of the never-ending list just because that’s a badass name. The Whiskey Gentry? You’ve got my attention. It took awhile with this album, partly because it had to grow on me and mostly because I’ve had some stuff go on in my personal life that put me behind in writing, but I’ve discovered that not only do they have a cool name, The Whiskey Gentry have a pretty good new album here as well.

Actually, the front half of this album is pretty excellent. We’ve got a traveling musician theme running through this record, established with the opener, “Following You,” a reminder that all the other dreamers are looking up to you as you try to make it. I love the line, “the worst day on the road beats spreading paint,” as it seems to be a reminder to them as well as to the listener. The title track is a companion to this, as the lead singer, Lauren Staley, describes getting an English degree and being able to talk Shakespeare but really dreaming of being the “more famous girl on the radio” that people supposedly mistake her for. The lighthearted “Rock n Roll Band” fits this theme as well, and although it’s not quite as memorable as these two, it fits in with the whole atmosphere of this record. “Looking for Trouble” attempts to be a bit more serious, but the instrumentation is still quite lively, and Lauren’s voice, though admittedly weak on quite a few of these songs, shines here on a more subdued track. “Paris” is just, well, let’s use the band’s own description, stupid, but damn, it’s fun, and I just love this. And then if you thought all they did was play upbeat, fun stuff, “Paris” dissolves rather abruptly into “Kern River.” That same fragility in Lauren Staley’s voice works to perfection on this cover, adding a natural vulnerability to the song. This was a brilliant choice, and at track 6, I’ve no complaints with this album at all. Sure, her voice gets drowned out in places, but her personality and the lively, fun instrumentation more than make up for this. OH, and I haven’t said so yet, but this is pretty damn country, despite Apple Music amusingly calling it rock…guess they assumed because of the sheer number of boring, mid-tempo country/Americana releases in 2017, anything this upbeat and cheerful couldn’t possibly be classified as such…but I digress.

The back half does have some problems. I’ll isolate “Drinking Again” on this half because it’s just awesome, and I’ve been singing this for a week and a half. It’s about her going into rehab and pretending to care while she dreams of getting back to drinking. She’s trying to get her drinking under control, but she’s got zero intention of actually giving it up; “it’s time to start drinking again, but first I gotta make it one more day.” “Seven Year Ache” isn’t bad either–in fact, I love the arrangement–but the very frailty I pointed out earlier in her voice doesn’t suit this song, and as a huge fan of the Rosanne Cash original, I wouldn’t have wished Lauren Staley anywhere near this song. “Martha From Marfa” is meant to be stupid just like “Paris,” but it doesn’t pull it off as well, and “Say it Anyway,” although it has a good message, is just a little forgettable. The two slower songs at the end, though placed there to highlight a different side of the group, really don’t add much. The hook of “Is it Snowing Where You Are?” is just weird, and “If You Were an Astronaut” takes incredibly long to get to the point. I’ll give this one the fact that the point, once reached, is good; it’s quite a nice love song once you extract it from all the metaphors. These two, as I say, do show another side to the band and also showcase Lauren’s voice better, but I could have done without both of them. I wouldn’t call any of this especially bad, but we went from excellent to mediocre on the back half, except for “Drinking Again.”

So, yeah, this rating was a bit hard to assign because quite a bit of this album is outstanding, mixed in with some really average, unremarkable stuff. Take off the two final tracks, and we’ve got a ten-track 8.5/10 for sure. But this album is definitely worth hearing because there’s some really good stuff here, and also because it’s just so fun and lighthearted, and we haven’t gotten a lot of that this year. We haven’t gotten too much good true country anyway, let alone true country with this much energy and personality. So thanks for introducing me to The Whiskey Gentry, and now I’m passing them on to you all.

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Album Review: Midland–On the Rocks

Rating: 7/10

Look, Midland are full of shit. I know it, you know it, and Midland sure as hell know it, and they should drop the bullshit about how they’re this bar band from Texas. But they aren’t going to, and we can either spend time hung up on that, or actually focus on the music. I can understand the criticisms, but look, there are a lot of artists I don’t like or respect personally that make fine music. You wonder why I don’t have a picture accompanying this review? Well, think about this: I don’t look at the outfits. Yes, I’ve seen the stories, but it’s easier for me to assess the music on its own merit. Many of you, and understandably so, judge a lot about an album or artist simply by the cover, something I didn’t honestly take into fair account until the John Moreland record. At that point, I saw as many comments on the cover as on the album. I see remarks all the time on the image of the artist, usually derogatory ones on mainstream artists peppered all over SCM threads, just to be blunt. Anyway, at that time, after I became curious at the scrutiny the Moreland cover had received, we started adding captions here for many of our covers, to give blind readers that advantage of being able to discern things from the cover art. Indeed, sometimes these captions have given me insight into my reviews. When you see the Steel Woods cover with a farmer biting into an apple staring into a hurricane and then hear “The Secret,” it’s all the more intense. Liz Rose’s cover adds more to that album too. But here, with Midland, I want you all to take your focus off that for a moment and just think about the quality of the music. I know this is ridiculous, and that you’ve seen plenty of pictures of them and their cover from other outlets, but try to understand the point I’m making here.

So we put this record on, all extraneous bullshit stripped away, and I’ll be damned, it’s traditional. Maybe not the second coming of Haggard, but I’d say 90’s country. NO electronic drumbeats, plenty of steel and fiddle, yeah, you know, those things we used to take for granted in country music. And this came out of Big Machine. I didn’t know it was possible in 2017. I didn’t know there were still people left in Nashville who could play actual instruments for an entire thirteen-song album. And you want to talk about songwriting by committee? Yeah, I’m not a fan of that either, but isn’t it refreshing to see people like Shane McAnally actually lending their names and talents to something resembling country music? You know, the guy that put Sam Hunt on the map?

And that’s not to say this album is going to be the best thing I’ve heard all year, not by any stretch. The best word for it is consistent. It’s solid all the way through, and it took a few listens to sink in. At first, it was pretty unremarkable to me. A couple listens in, this would have probably gotten a 6 from me. There are a couple life-on-the-road songs here like “Electric Rodeo” and especially “Check Cashin’ Country” that just seem fake–no, not because Midland haven’t traveled all over Texas, just because they’re a young band, and they don’t have the experience anyway. These songs just seem clichéd, and actually, that’s the biggest problem with this whole record. The songwriting by committee thing is most evident in this respect because you don’t get personal details from Midland; it’s great that the style is traditional country, but much like Alex Williams’ latest, this often feels like an interpretation of style instead of anything resembling personal expression. It’s a debut, and just as with Alex, I think we can forgive that for Midland. It’s the clichés that held this back for me at first, but equally, the songs are better as a whole than those on the Williams album, so it’s a 7, but a hesitant 7.

I said the songs are better, and it’s true–this album just won me over after awhile. It’s hard to hear “Make a Little” and not smile, both at the country instrumentation and the catchy melody. There’s “More Than a Fever,” which reminds me of something George Strait might have recorded later in his career. There’s “Somewhere on the Wind,” which manages to pull off the road-weariness thing pretty well. Clever details and hooks in songs like “At Least You Cried” and “Out of Sight” elevate these tracks as well. As I say, it’s not groundbreaking material, and there’s not a whole lot I can write about it, but it’s very solid.

I wish Midland had never lied about their background because a lot of people, myself included, would have never given a shit where they came from. But you know what? In a way, I get it too because from the shit storm I’ve seen on Twitter this week, I daresay there are some narrow-minded people who would have never given this band a chance even if they had been honest. It’s that narrow-mindedness that I hate in the independent/Americana/Texas scenes. And if you deny its existence, I present Sam Outlaw, his name and his previous occupation in advertising, as Exhibit A. How many people don’t give him a chance because of either or both of these things? It’s no excuse for Midland’s lies, and I think that’s done more harm than good, but in a way, I understand it. I’m sorry they didn’t let the music speak for itself, but we as music listeners can do just that, and that is how I for one choose to approach Midland. And if you do give this a chance, you’ll find some pretty good country music.

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Album Review: Suzanne Santo–Ruby Red

Rating: 9/10

Well, I haven’t been this excited about an artist in awhile, and I’m happy to introduce her and her music for any of you who are blissfully ignorant, like I was until last Thursday when she took the stage at Medicine Stone. So, it turns out that Suzanne Santo was previously half of the duo HoneyHoney, and this is her first solo album. It’s hard to pin it into any one genre, but it isn’t straight country; what you’ll get from this record is more a country rock/southern Gothic sound, mixed with some acoustic stuff. The commonality in it is it’s all pretty damn good music.

 “There’s a real sexist approach to having a bluntness about you that I really had to cope with. … It’s like ‘Oh, she’s being difficult’ ‘cause you have something to say.” That’s what Suzanne Santo said about the songs on her new album, and you can tell from the opening lines of the album, “I wanna smoke, and I wanna drink, and screw every time I think about you,” that she definitely has something to say. There’s something raw and unpolished in her writing and phrasing that shines through on many of these songs, signifying that, as she has said, this album is quite autobiographical, if at times metaphorical. She’s not afraid to say what she wants; later in the opener, she cries out, “don’t water down my whiskey, babe.” She’s not afraid to talk about vices and explore the darker places in her mind on “Ghost in my Bed” either. This one has some cool fiddle echoing in the background that adds to the atmospheric production. And she’s not shy about telling us exactly how she feels on the appropriately titled “Love Fucked Up,” when she says that she had the power till her lover came and “pulled my hair and bent my neck.” It’s incredibly refreshing to hear her so unashamedly saying things like that, and yes, hearing them from a woman, much like the material on Robyn Ludwick’s album, does add a certain overall power and coolness to the whole experience. As she alludes to in the quote above and points out later in that article, she’s being “unladylike” with this material, but not for the sake of it, it’s just her story.

But she’s not always drinking or talking about sex; there are some truly tender moments on this album too. They serve to show another side of Suzanne Santo and if anything add legitimacy to the darker stuff because it comes across as more real than as just put there to be shocking. “Best out of Me” is one of the best tracks here, as Santo tries to avoid repeating the cycle of the broken relationships in her family’s history. “Better Than That” is another standout, this one acoustic and probably the most country thing on the record. This song really shows off Suzanne’s vocals; she’s got a great ability to really draw out the emotion in each syllable, but sometimes on the more intense tracks, her voice can be drowned out some. In fact, it’s drowned out the most on the atmospheric “Regrets,” but thankfully, we get a beautiful acoustic rendition of that to close the album. Hearing the acoustic version makes me like the other one better–once I understood all the lyrics, I was able to enjoy the rocking production on the original more.

And speaking of production, congratulations to this album for being 100% interesting all the way through. No boring mid-tempo lull in the middle that lost me, no lack of variety in style or tempo, no shortage of interesting fucking melodies…I wrote my rant about melody after Suzanne Santo released this on August 11th, but if I hadn’t, I would have sworn she’d heard me. This is exactly the opposite of everything I criticized in that article. OH, and no crappy vocals–yes, her vocals do get drowned out sometimes, and that’s my only tiny complaint with this album, but she’s a fine singer. She’s got ridiculous power on “Handshake,” not to mention all those cool runs, and then she can tone it down and sing stuff like “Better Than That” beautifully. This has honestly been the first album I’ve genuinely enjoyed all the way through on first listen in over 2 months; the last was Tyler Childers, and y’all know how I feel about that album.

So, if you haven’t figured it out, I love this album. If you are more into darker material, more rock-leaning stuff, spacey production, check this out. If you like your songwriting unpolished and honest, there’s something here for you too. Really, there’s very little wrong with this in any regard, and I actually almost gave this a 10. I think really the only thing holding it back was maybe one more song to blow me out of the water; it’s all very consistent, and there are a couple great songs, but one more, and I’d have probably given this a 10 even despite her voice being drowned out at times. Anyway, I don’t have any more profound thoughts, just go listen, and get to know Suzanne Santo.

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Highlights from Medicine Stone 2017

It’s a great thing as a proud Oklahoman to see what the Turnpike Troubadours and Jason Boland have started in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, with Medicine Stone. It’s a wonderful three-day experience of music and fellowship on the Illinois River, and I recommend going if you like Texas and Red Dirt music, or even just live music in general. The people are great too, and I was glad to go back for a second year. Last year, I tried to cover as many bands as possible–though it is physically impossible to see all of them because some of them play on different stages at the same time–so this time, I wanted to write something a little different. I thought overall, the fifth Medicine Stone was even better than the fourth, and I really enjoyed almost everyone I saw. So rather than reiterating that for a bunch of different artists, I thought I’d highlight some of the lesser known artists that impressed me, and maybe introduce some of you to their music. We all know Randy Rogers and Boland and Turnpike can put on a good show–that’s why they were the three headliners–so I want to focus more on some of the other names. (Also, if you want to see me gushing about Turnpike’s live performance ability, you’ll likely get that in a month when I attend their album release party.) Anyway, the point to be taken here is that I probably enjoyed artists I’m leaving off this list–these are just some that stood out and deserve some recognition.

Suzanne Santo

Medicine Stone came under some fire in 2016 for only having two women on the lineup. This was taken into account, and several more women were included on the 2017 list, many of them highlights of the whole weekend. I didn’t know Suzanne Santo before she took the main stage to open things Thursday night, but I am a fan now. She has a new album out that you will find a review for shortly.

Shane Smith & the Saints

Friends, if you’re not listening to Shane Smith & the Saints, you’re doing it all wrong. One of the best things I saw both last year and this year. Phenomenal harmonies, ridiculous fiddle playing, good songwriting, interesting production…just get on board with this band. Massively underrated. I don’t know why more people aren’t writing about them. And for the ones who are already in on the awesomeness, go see them live. Also, you’ll be glad to know they are working on a new record!


I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Shinyribs aren’t going to be for everyone, as proven by my cousin’s reaction to this. But they should be, and I do hope they will keep coming back to Medicine Stone. I’ve been wanting to see them live since I discovered their latest album, and yeah, it lives up to everything you hear about it. Just fun. They don’t take themselves too seriously, and I like that. Get on board with them as well.

Sunny Sweeney

This was Sunny Sweeney’s first time at Medicine Stone, and all I can say is, please bring her back. One of the best performers as far as the more country side of Red Dirt goes. And really good interaction with us all. Also, just saying, she needs to record that lovely song she sang for us called “Whiskey Richard.” Just saying. She said it won’t get cut, but I think it should. I’d also like to point out that as a huge Sunny Sweeney fan but not necessarily a huge Trophy fan, I actually liked the songs from that album much better after hearing them live. Her personality made them come alive a lot more onstage.

Red Shahan

I’d like to apologize to the entire Medicine Stone community for not seeing Red Shahan last year–as I said, it’s physically impossible to see everyone, but I heard a lot of people tell me I should have seen him, and you know what? They were right. Good Lord, this is just a cool artist. Just as I said Sunny stood out among the more country artists, Red Shahan stood out among the artists with more rock leanings. He definitely needs to come back.

jaime lin wilson

Jamie Lin Wilson

Jamie Lin Wilson played at a smaller stage this year, and I was upset at first because she’d been on the main stage in 2016–but she shines in this intimate setting. She was one of the standouts last year, and she was even better this time. Also, I may have gotten to hear a song she wrote that Evan Felker added a verse to, and yes, it will be on the new Turnpike album. And Jamie Lin, we need some more new music from you soon.

Kaitlin Butts

The opposite of what I said about Jamie Lin applies to Kaitlin Butts–she was moved from a smaller stage to the main stage, and this is much better for her. All that attitude and energy is freer in this setting. She said she’s been to Medicine Stone all five years, and she should keep coming. Another one of these that’s massively underrated. Maybe not quite as much now after her song with Flatland Cavalry, but still. Get to know her, she’s one of Oklahoma’s best-kept secrets.

Jason Boland & the Stragglers

Okay, I’m breaking my own rule. Last year, Turnpike blew me away,and this year it was Jason Boland, and even though I’m trying to focus on lesser-known artists, I can’t ignore the outstanding live show that Jason Boland & the Stragglers put on. Best headliner I saw, and a tie between this and Shane Smith & the Saints for the best thing I heard all weekend. Something especially sweet when you get to sit there as an Oklahoman watching an Oklahoma-based band absolutely murdering the song “If I Ever Get Back to Oklahoma.”

Album Review: Kip Moore–Slowheart

Rating: 6.5/10

The case of Kip Moore is a curious one. Yeah, he’s not country; no, not in the slightest. This is a rock album, and the rating above reflects this as an album, not a country album. In fact, it’s less country than Thomas Rhett’s latest offering. Yep, you read that right. There’s actually a song or two on Rhett’s that might be halfway excusable on country radio. But this? Complete, 100% Kip Moore style rock. And I hate that he’s taking one of the precious few slots on a country label to release music as blatantly non-country as this.

But you know what? Inasmuch as Kip Moore is a problem for country music, his presence in the mainstream is a victory for music in general and for true artistry and musical expression. It’s not Kip’s fault they’ll play anything on country radio; credit to him for fighting his labels, releasing original, thoughtful material, most of which he helped write, but more than that, material he wanted to release. You have to give this guy credit for becoming the artist he wants to be in this environment, for managing to stick out in a world of clones and wannabes, and for yeah, just being himself. Remember when I said, Kip Moore style rock? That’s just it; he’s somehow prevailed to keep what makes him unique as an artist–Dustin Lynch, take a lesson–and that’s why you root for his success from a pure musical standpoint. So it’s not rife with fiddle and steel, and if you want that, steer clear. But if you’re just looking for something real, authentic, refreshing, and you have a little more genre allegiance than just strictly to country, you might find a lot to like about this record.

Moore’s last album, Wild Ones, was much the same sonically–most definitely a rock record labeled country, but also fresh and forward-thinking and somewhat unique to Kip. The instrumentation and production on that album were generally quite strong, but the lyrics were mostly just forgettable. It’s the lyrical content where you see a major improvement on this record; you still have the cool riffs and rocking guitars, but you also have depth. Some of these songs lyrically would make great traditional country tunes, and that might serve to attract more people to this album than to his last. As a country fan, it would be cool to hear some of them, like “Plead the Fifth” especially, with a more country production, but that wouldn’t be Kip Moore. That’s not his style, and he’s not compromising, so I have to respect that.

“Just Another Girl” is quite a good heartbreak song, and yeah, the rocking edge and catchy riffs really just add to the intensity. “Plead the Fifth” might be interesting country, but it works well this way too, and together, these open the album with two of its strongest tracks. There are some more hopeful looks on love as well, with the clever “Last Shot” and with “More Girls Like You,” which I enjoyed as a single and which works even better here. “I’ve Been Around” is a bright spot too–just catchy as all hell, and yeah, that’s really all I can say about that one. And then you get to the end and “Guitar Man” comes on and holy crap, this is pretty damn country. Maybe not stone cold, slide guitar country,, but acoustic, lyric-driven, something a Jason Isbell or probably any number of Texas/Red Dirt artists might record. I daresay this is Kip Moore’s strongest song to date; it’s about the traveling musician and all of his experiences on the road and with the audience. It’s the details that sell it, from the “two-tone bucket of rust” to the “redhead named Annie” to the “sweet Lisa” who mixes drinks; “life’s been hard on her, but she’s been good to me.” Kip Moore is obviously a good musician, and his ability as a songwriter has certainly come a long way here on this album, but this song especially displays his ability to draw out emotion when he sings. Just really impressed with this.

And now we come to the stuff here I could really do without. We have a lot of love songs, so the result is that some of them just become forgettable and blend into the background, especially “Try Again.” “Blonde” is lyrically actually pretty good; it’s a tale of a woman who’s become famous and forsaken her hometown and the people who knew her. But it’s got some sort of weird, poppy production that just doesn’t work for either Kip or the song, especially Kip, and I don’t know who came up with this idea, but it sucks. “The Bull” is also incredibly annoying, and it’s unfortunate that these two are back-to-back on the track list. Look, I get that “The Bull” is inspirational or something, as he wants to thank the “bulls that bucked me off” for making him stronger, but again, the production and really everything about this song is just extremely irritating to me. I also would have been happy if he’d left “Sunburn” off the record, as the only word I can think to summarize its existence here is pointless.

But overall, this album is pretty good. It definitely shows a lot of growth for Kip Moore in the lyrical department, and if you like rock albums, I encourage you to check this out. If you weren’t a fan of his past stuff because of the lyrical content, I encourage checking it out too, you’ll probably like it a lot better.

I wish Kip Moore were recording music in the rightful genre because at the end of the day, he shouldn’t be allowed to have success on country radio and country charts anymore than Thomas Rhett or even Sam Hunt. But as I say, what is a defeat for country music in this instance is also a victory for artistry and individuality. Do I wish Kip Moore’s place on Music Row were inhabited by someone more traditional, hell, even country at all? Yes, certainly I do. But as a fan of music first, this is a pretty good album, an album that Kip Moore wanted to make, an album that displays growth and uniqueness and individuality in a mainstream artist. So credit to Kip Moore for finding that, even more for finding it within the confines of the mainstream environment. (Again, Dustin Lynch, it is possible.) Not country in any universe, but not a bad record by any stretch.

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