All posts by Megan

Album Review: Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard–Django and Jimmie

Rating: 9.5/10

On June 2nd, before Country Exclusive came into existence, two country legends released a collaboration album entitled Django and Jimmie. Like several other earlier albums I have covered, this one certainly deserves a review. It hit #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums Chart and has held its own well against several radio-supported albums that have come out since. It is currently also at #11 on the Americana Airplay Chart. (I don’t know what the world is coming to when Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard are considered Americana, and Thomas Rhett’s latest single is considered country, but whatever.) Chart performance aside, however, this album deserves a review if for no other reason than it was released by two living legends. It reminds us that country radio can continue down the path to hell, but there will always be good country music being made. Modern country fans, I urge you to give this album a listen and appreciate these living legends while they are still with us.

The album’s title track and opener is a tribute to Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers, Willie and Merle’s inspirations. They sing, “There might not have been a Merle or a Willie if not for Django and Jimmie.” By the way, there are two things that immediately hit me from the start of this record; their friendship and musical chemistry is palpable, and their voices, though seasoned, are still great. Next is a fun, upbeat little song called “It’s All Going to Pot,” that hopefully I don’t need to elaborate on if you know anything about Willie Nelson. The instrumentation in this song, much like the rest of the album, is great, and some awesomeness is added to the song by its release date of April 20th.

The album turns serious on “Unfair Weather Friend,” a song about the ones who are there for us during life’s hardest times. This song is made better coming from Willie and Merle, whom I am sure have been there for each other throughout their lives. They pay tribute to another friend in “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash,” a humorous ode to the Man in Black in which they share personal stories and memories. My favorit part of this album is here–Merle asks Willie if he knows anything about Cash, and Willie replies, “Well, yeah, I know a lot of things about Cash, I’m not sure I should talk about it. But I checked with John and asked if it was okay and he said he didn’t give a shit. One time he took a casket up to his hotel room and got into it and called room service. I thought that was pretty funny.” This is just awesome.

“Live This Long” sees the two legends looking back on their lives and reflecting that they might not have lived as hard if they had known they’d live this long. I’m not sure how serious this is and whether they really would have changed one bit about the way they lived. “Alice in Hulaland” is about a fan who goes to all of a band’s shows. They speculate, “Are you there for the melody, there for the lyric, or just for the boys in the band?” It’s a nice, lighthearted track with plenty of steel guitar that I was surprised to have enjoyed so much. Next is an excellent cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” a song dealing with a bad relationship where they say “don’t think twice, it’s all right” as they leave. All I can say is take note, mainstream country artists, this is how to do a cover. It fits them perfectly and works well on the album.

“Family Bible” features Merle primarily and is a song reflecting back on childhood memories of his family reading the Bible together. This is extremely relatable and feels like hearing your grandparents’ memories, only in a song. It borrows a little of the melody from the hymn “Rock of Ages,” and I could picture my uncle singing this at his piano. I think it will connect with others in similar ways. “It’s Only Money” works well after this song–it’s an up-tempo song with the premise, “It’s only money, it will go away.” It’s nice to hear this from these two, and I don’t think it was placed after “Family Bible” by accident. Also, there is a saxophone in this song that just works beautifully, as well as some outstanding country piano playing. Next, they nail Merle’s hit “Swinging Doors,” where a man hangs out in a bar because he doesn’t feel welcome at home. Mainstream country artists, this is how to sing a heartbreak/drinking song. (Cole Swindell, I am looking right at “Ain’t Worth the Whiskey” here.)

“Where Dreams Come to Die” is an intriguing song about just that–the place where hopes and dreams are shattered. This is one of the “deeper” songs on the album, but it was easy to connect with for me, and I think many more will be able to relate to it as well. “Somewhere Between” is just Willie, which I find a little perplexing and out of place on a Willie/Merle album. Still, it’s a good heartbreak song in which Willie says there’s a wall “somewhere between” him and the woman he loves, with a “door without any key.” This is a good song with some excellent songwriting, but I would have liked it even better if Merle had joined in. It’s hard to say exactly what “Driving the Herd” is about, but I think “the herd” is the people at the shows. Merle and Willie talk about singing and playing from the heart while they’re “driving the herd.” My interpretation could be totally wrong, but even if so, the song has some of the best instrumentation and vocals on the whole album. The album closes with “The Only Man Wilder Than Me,” where the two friends sing of each other; each calls the other “the only man wilder than me.” It’s a great way to close this album of friendship.

Overall, Django and Jimmie is an excellent album. Willie Nelson is 82, and Merle Haggard is 78, yet their voices, though they sound seasoned, don’t reflect their ages at all. The songwriting on this album is stellar, yet still simple and relatable. This is what country music is all about. If someone asks you what “country” means, you can point to this album–simple arrangements, relatable songwriting, and great storytelling. One of the best albums of the year so far.

Listen to Album

Random Thoughts of the Week: Country Music Should Move Forward, Not Backwards

Last Friday (August 28th), Maddie & Tae’s debut album became the first mainstream album to receive a ten from me in the short history of this blog. It was characterized throughout by great country instrumentation–fiddles, steel guitars, mandolins, and banjos being used for good. There were a few lyrical weak points, but overall, the songwriting was great too, displaying a maturity that Kelsea Ballerini and RaeLynn lack, while still relating to the same demographic. In short, Maddie & Tae did something no one has managed to do in years; they brought real, traditional country music, albeit slightly pop-influenced at times, to the generation that believes “country” = hip-hop beats, bad rapping, and a token banjo. The impact this album and these ladies could have on the mainstream should be apparent to all of us, and if we truly want country music to survive, this is a victory we should be celebrating.

But apparently this is still not good enough for some people.

I have seen a number of comments on various reviews of this album saying that this is not country, that this is immature, and/or simply dismissing it out of hand because it is pop country. These people can’t even acknowledge that this is progress for country music because they immediately focus on the electronic beats, which were such a minimal part of this album that I didn’t even mention them in my review. First of all, I’d definitely say this is country-pop, not pop country, but if you don’t like pop country, fine. If you listen to this album and can’t deal with the occasional electronic beat–even with the fiddles, steel guitars, mandolins, and banjos always front and center–fine. But everyone reading this knows the fans I am addressing–these are the fans that want country music to return to its “golden age” and are so close-minded that they cannot even accept progress when it is staring them in the face. I actually addressed a commenter on SCM who listened to twenty-six seconds of one song and judged Maddie & Tae for being “bleach blondes.” Comments, and fans, like this, are hurting the genre as bad as, if not worse than, Sam Hunt fans who refuse to listen to Merle Haggard or Jason Isbell for more than twenty-six seconds. Close-minded classic country fans, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but country music is not going to return to its “golden age,” and Hank Williams is not going to be reborn, nor should we wish for this. Being stuck in the past like this does not help the genre–it is not progress to move country backwards. Rather, country music should move forward, while still respecting the roots of the genre. That’s right, I’m saying country should “evolve”–and no, that doesn’t equal Thomas Rhett’s “Vacation,” The Band Perry’s “Live Forever,” or Luke Bryan’s “Strip it Down,” but it does equal Maddie & Tae’s entire album.

Many of us remember the infamous remarks that Blake Shelton made in 2013, calling classic/traditional country fans “old farts and jackasses” among other things. Granted, he made this comment to defend the false “evolution” of country music, but there is some truth to his point that was overshadowed back then by the remarks themselves, as well as by his motive. I didn’t link this article because I don’t want to focus on the ridiculous/incorrect part of his remarks; however, part of his point is indeed valid. He said that young people don’t want to listen to their “grandpa’s music” and that is generally true. I am a twenty-three-year-old country fan interested in keeping the genre that I love alive, and while I respect the talent of the country legends who came before my generation, I generally prefer to listen to good country music of my generation. I’m sure you can understand this, older country fans, since you prefer to listen to the legends of your generation. However, as I said, I do respect the talent and vision of the legends that established the genre and made country what it is today; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t care what country “evolved” into. And respect is all I am asking of you–you don’t have to like Maddie & Tae or similar artists, but if you really want country music to survive, understand that it’s people like Maddie & Tae who have a chance of making that happen. Respect them as artists who can bring real country music to the generation that sees “country” as Sam Hunt and Kelsea Ballerini, and understand that this is what it will take to change the state of mainstream country music. And don’t say their music isn’t country–just as a banjo doesn’t automatically make music country, the presence of an electronic beat doesn’t immediately disqualify music from being country.

Older country music fans, instead of dismissing Maddie & Tae or another artist like them because of looks or style, at least give them a listen. If they’re not your cup of tea, fine. But maybe your children or grandchildren could relate to them. Instead of being close-minded and wishing for the days of George Jones, try introducing your children and grandchildren to country music through people like Maddie & Tae. This will do far more to “save country music” than ranting on a blog. Please don’t be one of the “old farts and jackasses” that Blake Shelton was referring to. Don’t be someone that makes true country fans like myself, who want to see the genre move forward and survive beyond our generation, look like close-minded, uninformed people who want everything to sound like Hank Williams. As long as there are comments and fans out there like these, the artists and labels will use them to their advantage to support their brand of “evolution” and ultimately to kill country music. Close-minded classic country fans, if you truly love country music, please do your part to keep it alive.

Tomato of the Week: Brandy Clark

Many people are somewhat familiar with, or have at least heard of, Kacey Musgraves. Brandy Clark has had a hand in writing many of Kacey’s songs and is a talented singer in her own right. See her full article on Female Friday!

Random Country Suggestion: Keith Whitley–“I’m No Stranger to the Rain”

A #1 hit for Keith back in 1989 and one of my all-time favorite country songs. See, there will never be another Keith Whitley, and why should we want one?

Non-Country Suggestion: Skillet–“Salvation”

As I say anytime I post Christian music here, if you don’t like Christian music, ignore this. If you do, this is the best song from their latest album.

Single Review: Thomas Rhett Brings Music to an All-Time Low With “Vacation”

Rating: 0/10

Much like Luke Bryan’s atrocious “Strip it Down,” I had planned to wait until Thomas Rhett’s album release to pass judgment on this song. But much like “Strip it Down,” a couple of sentences on an album review isn’t going to do this little work of art justice. Fourteen songwriters are given credit for this work of brilliance because it is so similar to “Low Rider” that the original writers had to be cited. Yes, my friends, that’s what country is today–the taking of previously good pop, r&b, and/or hip-hop songs and making them into your own brutal mess that wouldn’t pass for good music in any genre except country. But why spend any time crafting any original thoughts when country radio will play anything? No, it’s better to take another decent song and add your own shit. Then you only have to do half the work, and the teenage fangirls will buy it. If you were Thomas Rhett, and this is all you had to do to make money, doesn’t it seem reasonable that you would do it too?

And speaking of the fangirls, I am told by Trigger and the good commenters of
Saving Country Music that the video is full of preteen girls dancing around in bikinis singing about drinking beer. This is something I can’t verify, as I am blind and can’t judge the video, but I have no reason to doubt them, and this fact is possibly even more disturbing than Luke Bryan releasing his “Strip it Down” video to Tinder. Can country get any more embarrassing and sleazy?…no, Chase Rice, don’t answer that in your next video. Again, I’ll quote Maddie & Tae–“We used to get a little respect, now we’re lucky if we even get to climb up in your truck [to dance around in your video], keep our mouth shut, and ride along, [and sing along], and be the girl in a country song.” Let me speak as a woman to other women here…do you see this as respectful, and is this how you want your daughters to see themselves? Do you want your daughters or future daughters to view this as normal behavior for, and treatment of, women and young girls? Things like this have gotten so normal in our culture that they are too often ignored, but Maddie & Tae are right, and it sickens me to see women, especially mothers, being okay with this sort of thing.

The actual song that these fourteen have concocted is some sort of party song where the premise is “let’s party like we on vacation.” Fourteen songwriters, and no one thought to mention that in country, “we” = “we’re.” The rest of the lyrics aren’t any better, and it is a waste of my time to quote any…feel free to listen to them yourself. Keep in mind, it took fourteen songwriters to come up with them, so I can only imagine the country gold we’d get if one of them had to manage alone. The instrumentation is, to keep this short, a headache-inducing blend of anything but country. It doesn’t have a token banjo to pretend. It’s blatantly flipping off the entire genre. In an earlier review, I said that in 2015, you can call anything short of straight rap country, and that’s probably coming. Well, here it is. Now, we’ve had rap in country before, most notably from Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem,” which made the whole thing somehow acceptable for the first time. But again, there were token country instruments thrown in. This is a song where, if I turned on the radio, I wouldn’t even be able to mistake it for maybe, possibly being a country station. This is country losing its entire identity.

All this makes it arguably worse than “B.Y.H.B,” which I reviewed on July 14th as
the worst song I’d ever heard, from any genre Well, congratulations Thomas Rhett, you’ve topped this piece of shit in less than two months, because your masterpiece will actually get played on country radio. Why? Because Thomas Rhett released it, so it must be good. This is why the mindless fans of “music” like this are worse offenders than the artists. Artists make this shit because, as I mentioned above, this sells. This says Thomas Rhett and his team are good businesspeople, sellouts, not country, don’t care about music, etc. This says that our culture is actually so gullible and lazy that the majority of people will not only stream and purchase this song, they will consider it good country music. Right now, I have much more respect for pop and r&b fans than the fans of mainstream country radio, because this trash would have been laughed out of any other genre (evidence = Sam Hunt.) But apparently the “evolution” of country music means that terrible pop/r&b/hip-hop music now = good country….nice. This is a train wreck in any genre and a blatant mockery of the genre that Thomas Rhett professes.

My Top Ten Country Songs (August 2015)

I wrote this list and then looked back and realized how female-dominated it was. This month brought good releases from Lindi Ortega, Maddie & Tae, and Whitney Rose, as well as my discovery of Kasey Chambers (her album actually came out at the end of July.) Kip Moore released some good music, but most of it was rock. I haven’t actually listened to Pat Green’s latest album, Home, yet, as it came out while I was traveling. The other albums I listened to were Luke Bryan’s train wreck Kill the Lights and Michael Ray’s forgettable debut–I didn’t even bother to review this. The result is an August list rife with females.

10. Kip Moore–“Comeback Kid”–His latest was
clearly a rock album, but this song was an honest and personal moment from Kip that I really enjoyed nonetheless.
9. Kasey Chambers–“House on a Hill”–I debated whether or not to include Kasey Chambers on this list because her album actually came out at the end of July, but I didn’t discover her till August, and without her, this list would look entirely different. This duet with her father, Bill Chambers, about an old house which is about to be torn down is just one of the standouts on her
fantastic album Bittersweet.
8. Whitney Rose–“The Devil Borrowed My Boots”–“The devil borrowed my boots last night” is the best excuse for bad behavior I’ve heard in a long time, and
Whitney Rose delivers this with the same enjoyment I have when listening.
7. Kasey Chambers–“Oh Grace”–A beautiful song featuring banjo and Kasey’s remarkable voice telling us the story, from his point of view, of a man with nothing to offer Grace except his life.
6. Lindi Ortega–“Half Moon”–A lyrically brilliant song in which Lindi reflects on the “half moon hanging in the sky” and later compares herself to it. It is
one that needs to be heard to fully appreciate.
5. Kasey Chambers–“Heaven or Hell”–Another lyrically brilliant song in which Chambers speculates on where we go when we die, calls out hypocrites, and later reflects on her own standing with God.
4. Kasey Chambers–“Too Late to Save Me”–This song about a prostitute coming to terms with her life and actions is my favorite on Kasey’s album. Featuring great instrumentation, honest songwriting, and up-front lyrics like “they call me late, they call me whore,” this song is a must-listen.
3. Maddie & Tae–“Shut Up and Fish”–I’m sure you all were wondering where Maddie & Tae were, and that’s because they made it so far down on the list.
“Shut Up and Fish” is an excellent song in which the girl gets tired of an overly clingy date and ultimately pushes him in the lake. Please let this be a single.
2. Lindi Ortega–“Ashes”–There are other songs on here that are better lyrically, but Lindi’s voice sells this and puts it so high on the list. Her voice soars through this heartbreak song perfectly, and not only is it the best song on Faded Gloryville, it’s my favorite Lindi Ortega song to date.
1. Maddie & Tae–“After the Storm Blows Through”–Lindi was at the top all month until this song blew “Ashes” out of the water. I originally wrote that I thought these ladies were singing to each other, but a commenter on another site wrote that this was written about Maddie’s friend, whose father passed away. This beautiful song of friendship features great country instrumentation and chilling harmonies. It’s another must-listen.

Honorable Mentions

  • Lindi Ortega’s “I Ain’t the Girl” and “Someday Soon”
  • Kip Moore’s “Come and Get It” (I actually love this song, but it’s not country, so it doesn’t qualify.)
  • Maddie & Tae’s “Waitin’ on a Plane” and “Smoke”
  • Whitney Rose’s “Heartbreaker of the Year”
  • Kasey Chambers and Bernard Fanning’s “Bittersweet”

I’d love to hear your favorite songs from August!

Album Review: Whitney Rose–Heartbreaker of the Year

Rating: 7.5/10

Canadian country singer Whitney Rose released her second album, Heartbreaker of the Year, to the U.S. on August 21st. Produced by Raul Malo of The Mavericks, this album brings a unique sound that Rose describes as
“vintage pop-infused-neo-traditional-country.” It’s certainly unique and a sound that may not appeal to everyone, but as far as “vintage-pop-infused-neo-traditional-country” goes, it’s a pretty good album. It took some time for me to wrap my mind around Whitney Roses’s style, and this review was easily the hardest I have done so far. This rating is more of a comment on the songs themselves than the style. Whitney’s description is a good one, and it is a style that really has to be heard to either be appreciated or disliked.

The album begins with “Little Piece of You,” a love song where Whitney sings of a man with an “old school soul” and a “heart of gold” and wonders where he found all those “little pieces” of himself. It’s an interesting theme and this is one of the album’s better songs lyrically, but it leans much more toward the “vintage pop-infused” side. Because of this, I’m not sure if it was the best choice for the opener. Next is “My First Rodeo,” an upbeat song that again is more “vintage pop-infused.” This one is more catchy and might have been a better opener. There is also more country blended into this song. Speaking of country, the next song, “The Last Party” is the most country song of the bunch. It is a classic country heartbreak song, complete with plenty of steel guitar for traditionalists. The piano in this song adds a nice touch as well, and the harmonies between Whitney Rose and Raul Malo work really well. Having said that, the lyrics simply could have been better.

“Only Just a Dream” is a better balance of vintage pop and country featuring more prominent piano play. Whitney sings about a man she loves, but he is “only just a dream.” Again, the harmonies work really well in this song. The bluesy title track follows; here is a unique heartbreak song where Whitney is asking if she can “pat the back of the heartbreaker of the year.” She treats the whole thing like a pageant; his mother must be crying and his hometown must be proud. In contrast to “The Last Party,” this song gets everything right–the instrumentation, Whitney Rose’s vocals, and the witty lyrics. It’s definitely a standout on this album.

“Be My Baby” is next. This is a cover of the song by The Ronettes and is a duet with Raul Malo. Their interpretation of the song is remarkable and it’s one of the better songs on the album. Their voices blend nicely together too, and it’s also great to see a cover like this as opposed to a cover of some pop or hip-hop song. “The Devil Borrowed My Boots” is a country song that would have done well on radio ten years ago. Whitney tells us about the night before, which she spent drinking, smoking, and starting trouble in a bar. There’s a catch, though–it wasn’t her. “The devil borrowed my boots last night,” she sings. This is a clever hook, and this is my personal favorite song on the album. This song has an infectious rhythm, and it’s easy to tell Whitney enjoyed singing it as much as I enjoy listening to it. If you only listen to one Whitney Rose song, make it this one.

“Ain’t it Wise” is a love song that is more “vintage pop-infused.” The song basically says, “Ain’t it wise to love someone” in different ways all the way through it, and for me, the lyrics are forgettable. The melody is a plus, and it’s not a bad song, but it doesn’t stand out. Next is “Lasso,” a song about a man who has Whitney “caught in his lasso.” This song is catchy, and the instrumentation is a nice blend of that “vintage-pop-infused-neo-traditional-country.” My only complaint here is that the vocals are sometimes drowned out by the production. I’d probably enjoy this song more if I could understand more of it. This is a problem in parts of her other songs too; I just feel the need to mention it especially in this song. The album ends with another cover, this time of the Hank Williams standard “There’s a Tear in my Beer.” (Yes, a modern country singer covered Hank Williams.) Now, I’ll be the first to say I am not a fan of the original version of this song; that’s just personal taste, not critical review of Hank Williams or that song. However, Whitney’s version is a completely different song; it sounds almost like a lullaby. It is the perfect example of taking a song and making it your own. Her cover is a good 2015 version of this; I say that as a reviewer. I actually like this song now; I say that as a fan. Once again, the cover choice by Whitney Rose was a smart one.

Overall, this album is unique and the style might take some getting used to. However, Whitney Rose’s album is a true “evolution” of the country sound, and for that, she should be commended. This is, for the most part, a good pop country album. There are some great examples of her songwriting on here–her songwriting can be found on every track besides the covers. She picked smart covers and interpreted them well. Something I didn’t mention enough is her unique voice; much like Lindi Ortega and Kasey Chambers, Whitney has a sound that’s all her own. If you’re not familiar with Whitney Rose, this is a good place to start.

Listen to Album