Category Archives: Commentary

Thirteen Observations From Last Night’s CMA Awards

So, the 51st annual CMA Awards had its moments of atrocity, but overall, there was more good than bad last night. Here are some highlights and opinions, in no particular order–the good, the bad, and the curious.

1. Sam Hunt walks away winless despite “Body Like a Back Road” breaking historic records on the charts. It pains me to type this, but logic says he should have won Single of the Year, as this is about commercial success–except the CMA stomped all over that logic by saying this moron isn’t country, and we aren’t giving him awards no matter what records he breaks with his dumb single. Also, FGL, Luke Bryan, and Thomas Rhett remain empty-handed which can only be counted as a blessing.

2. Miranda Lambert says “f you” to the entire establishment by coming out and performing “To Learn Her,” the most traditional song of her career and that we’ve seen at these award shows in recent memory. Stellar performance.

3. Carrie Underwood comes out singing “Softly and Tenderly” while images of lost country greats and Las Vegas footage play in the background. This was stellar as well, and because we’ve got this whole Carrie/Miranda thing going on, my only fear here is that Carrie’s moment will somehow make Miranda’s less noteworthy. Both should be equally recognized and appreciated.

4. Chris Stapleton’s wins, while definitely victorious for real country music, are starting to get predictable. Don’t get me wrong, he deserves them, but I don’t want to see the CMA fall into a thing where we award Stapleton as the token traditionalist like we award Miranda Lambert as the token female.

5. Brothers Osborne break into “Tulsa Time” in tribute to the great Don Williams which can only be described as badass.

6. Little Big Town actually do a stunning tribute to Glen Campbell with “Wichita Lineman.”

7. ON the flip side of this, Dierks Bentley and Rascal Flatts completely suck ass at the tribute to Troy Gentry. Look, good on the CMA for paying tribute to all these guys, but the sound quality was shit. Troy deserved better.

8. Alan Jackson, in what can only be described as a curious move, comes out singing “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow.” Great song, made me happy, but definitely a missed opportunity to promote his current single and prove that traditional country music is still alive and well, not just a thing of the past.

9. Pink shouldn’t have been booked on this show, but her performance was more understated and country than many of the supposed country performers.

10. Old Dominion are still atrocious, Kelsea Ballerini’s “Legends” still sucks, and Maren Morris’s collaboration of “Seeing Blind” was utterly useless. I have not gotten the Maren Morris hype since “My Church.”

11. Sturgill Simpson busked outside the event in his characteristic arrogant fashion, most likely to protest the CMA attempt to keep the night from being focused on politics.

12. Garth Brooks lip synced–and did a bad job of it–as I’m sure many of you know, thereby making his win for Entertainer of the Year completely embarrassing. He did admit to it, and you can’t fault him for being sick, but this makes his win look pretty idiotic.

13. Eric Church, despite doing more for country music from the inside than most, performing 40-song sets by himself on tour, committing himself to his fans, prominently featuring women in his performances on these shows, doesn’t win anything. Look, it’s good that we’re not recognizing Sam Hunt and FGL, but not recognizing Eric Church for his efforts is wrong and frankly ridiculous.

2017 CMA Awards: Preview and Predictions

The CMA’s will air tonight at 7 PM CST on ABC. For snarky commentary, feel free to follow me on Twitter @Honest_Country

Video of the Year

“Better Man”–Little Big Town
“Blue Ain’t Your Color”–Keith Urban
“Craving You”–Thomas Rhett feat. Maren Morris
“It Ain’t my Fault”–Brothers Osborne [won]
“Vice”–Miranda Lambert
Notes: “It Ain’t my Fault” won this earlier today, and as this is the only video of the five I know anything about, I can honestly say it’s a good one, but I can’t make a fair judgment for it against the others.

Musical Event of the Year

“Craving You”–Thomas Rhett feat. Maren Morris
“Funny How Time Slips Away”–Glen Campbell and Willie Nelson [won]
“Kill a Word”–Eric Church feat. Rhiannon Giddens
“Setting the world on Fire”–Kenny Chesney and Pink
“Speak to a Girl”–Tim McGraw and Faith Hill
Notes: Make no mistake, Glen got the sympathy vote here, but hey, it kept Thomas Rhett from winning. It’s a shame they didn’t broadcast this.

Vocal Group of the Year

Little Big town
Lady antebellum
Old Dominion
Rascal Flatts
Zac Brown Band
Prediction: Little Big Town because I’m not stupid
Preference: Um, Turnpike Troubadours? Seriously, this category sucks.

Vocal Duo of the Year

Florida Georgia Line
Brothers Osborne
Maddie & Tae
Dan + Shay
LoCash
Prediction: Brothers Osborne
Preference: Brothers Osborne
Notes: So, until they combine Duo and Group, both categories will inevitably be ridiculous…Maddie & Tae are great but have done nothing this year deserving of this slot. LOCash don’t deserve it either. I think Brothers Osborne have a better shot than FGL, but never discount those two from this award either.

Single of the Year

“Body Like a Back Road”–Sam Hunt
“Tin Man”–Miranda Lambert
“Better Man”–Little Big Town
“Blue Ain’t Your Color”–Keith Urban
“Dirt on my Boots”–Jon Pardi
Prediction: “Body Like a Back road”
Preference: “Better Man”
Notes: Single of the Year is supposed to be for commercial success, so logically, Sam Hunt should actually win this. Logically, he should also not be in country, so “Better Man” is another good commercial choice that would make me want to vomit much less. Also, “Dirt on my Boots” in no way deserves to be here, either for critical acclaim or commercial success.

Song of the Year

“Body Like a Back Road”–Sam Hunt, written by Zach crowell, Sam Hunt, Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne
“Better Man”–Little Big Town, written by Taylor Swift
“Blue Ain’t Your Color”–Keith Urban, written ┬áby Clint Lagerberg, Hillary Lindsey, Steven Olsen
“Tin Man”–Miranda Lambert, written by Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, Jon Randall
“Dirt on my Boots”–Jon Pardi, written by Rhett Akins, Jesse Frasure, Ashley Gorley
Prediction: “Tin Man” or “Better Man”
Preference: “Tin Man” by a mile
Notes: “Tin Man” deserves this, but Taylor swift wrote “Better Man” which might be reason enough for voters to select it. Single and Song of the Year should not be the exact same five; songs are supposed to be about the writing and the critical acclaim. Once again, “Dirt on my Boots” doesn’t deserve a spot here by any stretch of the imagination.

New Artist of the Year

Brett Young
Lauren Alaina
Jon Pardi
Luke Combs
Old Dominion
Prediction: Luke Combs or Jon Pardi
Preference: Luke Combs
Notes: Old Dominion are on their second horrific album, so not exactly new. Lauren Alaina, although making good music, is also on her sophomore album, though for her, there was a six-year break between releases, so she’s arguably new again. Cool to see a female here, but she won’t win. Luke Combs should win this over Pardi–look, I understand Jon Pardi is more traditional and all, but except for “Head Over Boots,” he’s released absolute shit to radio. At least Luke’s single is good. Unless Brett Young is being nominated for his newfound cure for insomnia–which, granted, his album is doing amazing things for in that field–he shouldn’t be anywhere near this award.

Album of the Year

Little Big Town–The Breaker
Chris Stapleton–From a Room, Volume 1
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit–The Nashville Sound
Miranda Lambert–The Weight of These Wings
Lady Antebellum–Heart Break
Prediction: Miranda Lambert or Jason Isbell
Preference: Miranda Lambert, but I’d be happy with Isbell and okay with Stapleton
Notes: I don’t think Jason Isbell’s nomination here was simply a token one, and I think he’s a strong candidate for this award. He’s also been named artist in residence by the Country Music Hall of Fame which shows that the industry is taking notice of him. and we saw with Stapleton’s 2015 wins that the CMA pays attention to things beyond radio play and mainstream success. But I think Stapleton and Isbell may split votes, and ultimately, Miranda Lambert will probably win. I’ll also take the unpopular stance that while this field is incredibly strong and Jason Isbell is completely deserving, Miranda Lambert’s album was actually a bit better. But when you’ve got three great albums here, it’s hard to complain if any of them walk away with this.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Kelsea Ballerini
Miranda Lambert
Maren Morris
Reba McEntire
Carrie Underwood
Prediction: Miranda, duh
Preference: Miranda Lambert
Notes: well, at least they actually found five females to fill this category. People are getting sick of Miranda winning, but this year, she actually deserves it.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Dierks Bentley
Thomas Rhett
Chris Stapleton
Eric Church
Keith Urban
Prediction: Chris Stapleton
Preference: Chris Stapleton or Eric Church
Notes: Just the fact that I’m actually predicting Chris Stapleton to win anything shows how far we’ve come in the past two years, but he should win this award. It would be nice to see Eric Church win something and get some credit for all he’s done for music of substance in the past year, but I don’t see him winning it. Ultimately, he deserves Entertainer of the Year, but that’s not going to happen either. And if we’re totally honest with ourselves, “Kill a Word” should have won the Musical Event of the Year award too. I don’t see Church winning anything, but you never know, he’s got two performance slots; if he does win anything, it will be this award.

Entertainer of the Year

Garth Brooks
Luke Bryan
Eric Church
Chris Stapleton
Keith Urban
Prediction: Garth Brooks
Preference: Eric Church
Notes: I hope justice is served for Eric Church here, but I don’t see it happening. Luke Bryan could also win, as he just released a lead single, but I think you’ll see this go to Garth again this year.

Mourning the Loss of the Gentle Giant Don Williams

I remember vividly the shame and embarrassment my seven-year-old self felt when, after telling my classmates on the first day of school in response to one of those questions about what we’d all done that summer that I’d been to a concert, they asked excitedly who it was, and when I said, “Don Williams,” the ridicule began in earnest. IN the space of a few seconds, I’d gone from having one of the most exciting summer adventures to having done possibly the most nerdy thing a kid could confess to. I had been proud then of the concert I’d attended; indeed, it had been the first country show I’d ever gone to, and although I was firmly ensconced in the more modern sound of late 90’s country music, Don Williams had been one of my first introductions to the older styles. But they made me feel as if liking his music and going to his show was something to be ashamed of, and from then on, I was careful about the amount of country music fandom I allowed myself to display around them.

But now, sitting here three days after the death of Don Williams, the beloved Gentle Giant, I am forever thankful that I went to that concert back then, heard that unmistakable voice live, a voice like none other before and I daresay never will be. Years later, going through difficult times in my life, Don Williams music was often what I found myself turning back to. Even before I found all this independent, more traditional music floating around, Don Williams music brought me comfort and escape. During dark times, it was Keith Whitley who understood me, that voice wrought with emotion borne only from experience, Keith Whitley who understood pain better than maybe anyone who has ever made music, certainly better than anyone i knew. And it was Don who put a smile on my face afterword, who reminded me of happier times, simpler times. You can’t listen to a Don Williams record and not draw strength and comfort from it, and for me, it was like therapy. I wrote in a reflection piece not long ago that Don Williams songs are just relaxing. They are guaranteed to make you feel better.

I’ve been saddened, especially in recent years, as more and more artists I loved have passed on and left us their legacies. I can remember exactly where I was the morning I learned of Merle Haggard’s death, and it made me miss my grandma all over again because she used to play his music. I remember growing up with Glen Campbell’s songs, and his loss was truly painful. I still can’t get through his final record because it depresses me too much. While it’s true that I didn’t own tons of Montgomery Gentry albums, I did enjoy their music growing up, and Troy Gentry’s death is no less, and no more, tragic than Don’s. But Don Williams was a friend, even if I didn’t know him. His music lifted me up and brought me through hard times in my life, and it’s mostly all I’ve wanted to play since Friday.

If you haven’t gotten to know my friend, even though these are terrible circumstances, I encourage you to take the time to get acquainted with the Gentle Giant. That incredible voice lives on in his music, and his songs will always be here to bring us comfort, even if we’re seeking comfort from the loss of Don Williams himself.

Melody: The Most Forgotten and Forsaken Element in Music

“Nobody even attempts to write a melody.”

These were some of the infamous words of Merle Haggard when he gave his opinion on modern mainstream country back in 2015. Interesting words because while you can find plenty of people harping on the lack of lyrical content and substance in the mainstream, or bitching about the encroachment of other genres and electronic beats into their beloved country music, not many people have commented on what may be the most rampant problem running through modern American music: the consistent lack of memorable and engaging melodies.

But even though we don’t mention it, this makes sense in the mainstream. Much of the stuff coming from Music Row is unimaginative and forgettable, and the lack of melody is only one small problem. So yeah, maybe we don’t criticize it often enough, but it’s not a stretch to see the undeniable lack of care for this crucial element in mainstream country.

But I’d argue it’s an even bigger problem in the world of Americana and independent music; yep, you know, that world where everything is good, and we can’t criticize anything. IN fact, I’d say that the mainstream is maybe the best place to find entertaining melodies these days–and no, that’s not saying a lot because so much mainstream music is just downright boring, but the majority of the songs we call “guilty pleasures” that come out of the mainstream stick with us because they’re catchy. They get stuck in our heads. Sure, we know the lyrics are stupid, maybe even at times misogynistic. But it’s the melody, and/or that lively, infectious instrumentation that keeps us liking the song despite how our mind tells us we should feel about it.

Conversely, how many Americana projects have you listened to that while there weren’t any flaws per se, there was also nothing memorable whatsoever? Maybe you read reviews or heard from listeners how great a record was, how awesome the songwriting was, etc., and for whatever reason just could not get into the album. That’s not to take away from the special art of songwriting, and it’s also true music is by nature subjective, but sometimes, albums are ruined just by a lack of effort and care for the melodies. Ray Wylie Hubbard’s is a shining example of this and indeed the inspiration for this post; equally, John Moreland’s latest might well have been the most boring record of the year if not for those catchy hooks and enchanting melodies that kept you coming back enough times to really unwrap the brilliance in his lyrics.

This problem of forsaking melodies is no doubt directly related to the equally alarming lack of quality vocalists in the independent scenes, which is itself a topic worthy of an entire post. We question whether to criticize such things as a singer’s vocal ability, and indeed, things like tone can’t be helped, but the technical abilities of singers can also be improved. Shows like The Voice and American Idol have gone to the other extreme, painting a picture of vocal ability as everything without taking into account an artist’s ability to draw an audience in emotionally. This emotional connection is more vital than technical skill, But singing is also more than emotive interpreting; this is what makes it different from reading poetry. it’s also nice to hear a great vocalist sing the hell out of a song; that’s one of the reasons Lauren Alaina’s sophomore album was such a joy to listen to.

When singer-songwriters are writing songs to fit their increasingly limited vocal ranges and abilities, their melodies become limited as well and often become somewhat of an afterthought. The results are often good lyrics that were turned into boring, lifeless songs. I’ve heard numerous Americana albums like this in 2017, brimming with good songwriting but completely forgettable. A singer may indeed possess that special thing that connects them with an audience and allows them to draw emotion out of every word, but does that matter if those magical words are translated into boring, forgettable music? Melody is what brings the lyrics to life and makes the songs resonate with us and get stuck in our heads. A script is only as good as the actors who make it come alive onstage, and lyrics on a page are only as thoughtful and relatable as the vocalist who interprets them for the world and the melody to which the songwriter sets them.

We praise songwriters, and we say we’re living in the age of the song, but it’s more like the age of the lyric. These independent/Americana types are often so caught up in telling a story and/or being deep and thoughtful that they forget what makes music such a unique and treasured art form. It’s good to be artistic, but that artistry shouldn’t replace accessibility. Even our greatest songwriters like Jason Isbell are guilty of this; there’s some brilliant material on his latest album, but some of it is honestly just forgettable melodically. This is not to take away from Jason Isbell as an artist or a lyricist, more to paint a picture of just how deep the problem goes and to illustrate that even the greatest songwriters and albums suffer from this phenomenon in 2017.

There is a lot of talk these days, especially in this blogging world, about what, if any, of the music coming out currently will be remembered years from now. Not ten or twenty, but say, fifty years down the road. Will we be listening to any music from today like people still listen to Hank? That’s a whole different discussion, but I’d argue that it’s not just the lack of substance keeping songs from having that timeless quality. It’s not just shallow radio singles that will be forgotten, but many of our greatest songwriters in both mainstream and independent music will suffer the same fate if they continue to treat melody as some sort of secondary element. It’s that indefinable thing that keeps us coming back to a song years later, that recalls a memory, a specific place and time, and has us singing a chorus we haven’t heard in so long but to which we still can recite the words. It’s the melodies which linger on in our minds and stir our hearts, and I hate to see it becoming so marginalized, even by otherwise great musicians and lyricists. So songwriters, please don’t forget this crucial part of your craft, or treat it as somehow secondary to your lyrics. It’s the thing that holds them together and gives them character, taking those thoughts from your head and words on a page and turning them into timeless songs that we’ll sing for years to come.

Advice to Young Girls Seeking Country Airplay

You know the days when you could turn on the radio and hear all sorts of interesting female voices? That’s been true throughout country’s history, from Loretta and Dolly on down to Martina and Faith. Nowadays, it’s Miranda and Carrie–well, no, not even Miranda, as her latest single struggles mightily to chart despite its sales and critical acclaim. Better to say Carrie and Kelsea. Anyway, to all the young girls out there who might be pursuing a career in country music and are wondering just how to shatter the glass ceiling on country radio, here’s some tried-and-true advice.

1. Don’t, under any circumstance, release something traditional. Fiddle, steel, mandolin, throw them all out. Even if they might make an appearance on your album–which is also discouraged–at least do what Maddie & Tae did with “Girl in a Country Song” and release a single with electronic beats and pop elements. Keep all the traditional fans guessing at your intent, wondering if the beats are serious or sarcastic, because it’s better to hold them at arm’s length or even to alienate them altogether if you want to get a #1 at radio.

2. Ignore all the misogynistic bullshit thrown at you by radio programmers, record executives, and in many of the male songs on country radio. Katie Armiger spoke up about that a couple years ago, and look what happened to her career.

3. Don’t date anyone in the industry, or better yet, don’t attempt to have a personal life on any level. Lindsay Ell taught us that.

4. Trivialize the female problem on country radio and in the industry. Kelsea Ballerini’s got success, and she barely admits to the problem. Meanwhile, the ones who speak up about such things struggle for recognition. Just worry about breaking in yourself, and don’t try to help other women along the way.

5. Forget just ignoring the misogyny, try writing lyrics about being these types of women. Throw all your dreams and hard-hitting lyrics to the side and sing about tailgates and tight jeans. If at all possible, try accepting the objectification and embracing this role.

6. Try not to veer too far from singing songs about love or getting noticed by men. Under no circumstances should you speak up about the type of songs that women are often stereotyped as singing.

7. Don’t be sexual or have sexual desires, and if you do suffer from these afflictions, don’t leak them into your music, for God’s sake.

8. Talk about your outfits more than your music. It’s not okay to be sexual in your songs, but it is important to be viewed as desirable at all times.

9. If all this fails, sing one or two lines on a male song, and you’ll soon have a #1 hit. It doesn’t matter if you sound like a glorified backup singer, take it from Maren Morris.

10. Finally, remember that your awards, sales, and most importantly, your perspective, do not matter in this industry and on the radio. Let go of these archaic notions, and you might soon be one of the only four females in the top fifty. Here’s to being one of the fortunate 8%, and I look forward to your #1 hit!