Category Archives: Reviews

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.

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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.

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.

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Album Review: Maddie & Tae–Start Here

Rating: 10/10

If you have read Female Fridays, you already know how I felt about Maddie & Tae up to this point. They are one of the main reasons I came back to country after losing all hope for the genre. I have recently become a reviewer of country music, but I am a fan first–those of us on independently-run sites are–and as a fan, I confess I had a lot of hopes for this album. I hoped it would be full of the country I heard on the EP. I could not bear to see another beacon of light for country become a singer of EDM (Zac Brown Band, talking about you), or some other trend. I am so glad to say this album reinforced my faith in Maddie & Tae and even gave me a shred of hope for country music.

The album opens with “Waitin’ on a Plane,” which is about a girl leaving town to chase her dreams. She’s sitting in seat 7A waiting for the plane to leave, thinking of the life she’s leaving and the future. Immediately I’m reminded of the Dixie Chicks’s “Ready to Run.” It’s not just the type of song, it’s their harmonies and style as well. People who said we’ll never hear anything like the Dixie Chicks again, think again, it’s here in Maddie & Tae. Next is their hit “Girl in a Country Song,” the anti-bro country anthem that put Maddie & Tae on the map. I wasn’t reviewing when this song came out, so I’ll say it now; this song is brilliant, and even more so in the context of an album. At the time of its release, many wondered why Maddie & Tae used hip-hop influences in their song and whether they would really be as “traditional” as they claimed. This song is the only one on the album with this type of influence, proving that along with the excellent, witty lyrics–which name-drop songs in clever, as opposed to obnoxious, ways–the instrumentation is there on purpose. They adopted the style to make fun of the trend while at the same time appealing to radio; if that song had been rife with steel guitar, it would never have gotten to radio, much less hit #1.

“Smoke” is a love song in which they are comparing a guy to “smoke.” I can’t help but think of the song by A Thousand Horses with the same name. In that song, a girl is “like smoke” because she is an addiction; in Maddie & Tae’s song, the “smoke” metaphor comes from this as well, but also lines like “You’re just like smoke blowin’ on the wind, one minute you’re by my side, and then you’re gone again.” This song has much better songwriting and paints a better picture of the guy described. “Shut Up and Fish” is one of my personal favorites; here, the narrator is fishing with “a city guy,” but all he wants to do is make out. He’s interrupting her while she’s trying to fish, saying, “It don’t get any better than this.” She responds, “Yeah, it could, if you would shut up and fish.” She ends up pushing him in the lake. I have unashamed bias toward this song because I am a female who both hates clinginess in guys and loves fishing. This song would be a great single.

The three other songs from the Maddie & Tae EP follow. “Fly,” their current single, is a nice inspirational song about not giving up and learning to fly. The lyrics could be a little better, but their harmonies are excellent, and this song should really connect with young girls everywhere. “Sierra” will connect with them as well–it’s a song where Maddie & Tae vent their frustration on a girl who ditches her friends, breaks boys’ hearts without caring, and generally acts like she’s better than everyone else. This might seem like just another song written by some teenage girls, but compare “Sierra, Sierra, life ain’t all tiaras” to Kelsea Ballerini’s “you can take your new blonde out to get your drink on” and tell me who writes better lyrics. “Sierra” would be a nice third single. “Your Side of Town” is an upbeat song with prominent country instrumentation that I could see as a single as well. It’s a song where they are telling some guy who broke one of their hearts to stay on his side of town and stay away from them.

“Right Here Right Now” has a little pop influence and is a youthful love song about taking the first step “right here right now tonight.” I love that I can write “a little pop influence”–it seems Maddie & Tae understand the difference between pop country and straight pop, an area in which the bros in their thirties and forties could take a lesson. “No Place Like You” is the actual country version of Kip Moore’s “Lipstick.” It actually tells the story of going to different places but still missing home and the one you love. This is actually country and does not go too far with the name-dropping, but rather balances out the place names with other details. “After the Storm Blows Through” is the most country song on the album and easily the best. This song about being there for a friend “after the storm blows through” features fiddles, acoustic guitars, and chilling harmonies. I feel like Maddie & Tae are singing to each other here, but I could be wrong. At any rate, this song gave me chills every time I listened to it and is one you definitely need to hear. The album closes with “Downside of Growing Up,” which is just that–an honest look at growing up that will be relatable to many young people.

Start Here is an excellent album. I have never heard anything resembling Dixie Chicks harmony and style before, but I hear it now in Maddie & Tae. The first country group I ever liked was the Dixie Chicks. I remember Wide Open Spaces was one of the first country albums I ever owned, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. That’s what Maddie & Tae can do. They can bring young people back to country. They can bring the ones who think of “country” as Sam Hunt and Kelsea Ballerini back to real country music. Pop makes an occasional appearance on this album, but mostly, we hear fiddles, acoustic guitars, and mandolins. Their songwriting is excellent, especially for a debut album–they co-wrote each of these tracks. Maddie & Tae have brought hope to country music, and Start Here is one of the best albums of 2015.

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Album Review: Kasey Chambers–Bittersweet

Rating: 10/10

First of all, I want to give credit to Josh Schott of
Country Perspective
because until he reviewed this album yesterday, I had never listened to Kasey Chambers. I’d only heard the name and knew her to be an Australian country singer. Now, it says a lot about the quality of this album that after one day, I have listened to it and am here reviewing it. Kasey Chambers is a name you should know, and you can expect a future Female Friday fully devoted to her. But for now, let’s focus on her latest studio album, Bittersweet, which recently became available everywhere (Australia has had it since 2014.)

The album opens with “Oh Grace,” which almost exclusively features a banjo and Kasey’s remarkable voice. Here, Kasey sings as a man asking a woman, Grace, to marry him. He is poor and has nothing to offer her but love, but says that all he has is “yours for eternity, if I make you my wife.” It’s nice to hear a banjo used for good and not evil; rather than being a pop song with banjo added to pretend to be country, this is a country song where a banjo drives the beat. “Is God Real?” finds Kasey struggling with the question and deciding that she’ll pray to Him anyway. The concept of God is discussed throughout this album, and it’s refreshing and honest to hear, regardless of your views on the matter. “Wheelbarrow” is probably the most intriguing song on the album, and the bluesy instrumentation blends nicely with the lyrics and Chambers’s vocals to make it catchy. In this song, there is a whole new side of Chambers’s voice than the softer one presented on “Oh Grace,” and it’s hard to say which style suits her voice better.

“I Would Do” is a love song listing all the things Kasey would do for her man. I love the opening line: “Everybody plays the fool, I am no exception to the rule.” “Hell of a Way To Go” is a nice country rock song about dying of a broken heart. Next is “House on a Hill,” a beautiful song where Kasey sings with her father, fellow country singer Bill Chambers, about a house that is falling apart and about to be torn down. “It’s been through it all, and there’s cracks in the walls, they may as well just take me down too”–what a great line.

“Stalker” comes next, and after the darkness of “House on a Hill,” it works. It is a fun, upbeat song literally about being someone’s stalker. The lyrics can only be described as disturbing. On my first listen, it was extremely creepy. On my second listen, it was hilarious. I like to think Kasey put this on the album solely for shock value and/or to creep out everyone she knew–if your friend wrote this, you would sincerely hope it wasn’t meant for you. “Heaven or Hell” is one of my early favorites on the album; it deals with where we go when we die and also speaks to hypocrites, saying that our deeds will all come out one day. More excellent songwriting is present here–“Clever little liar with a righteous tongue, reputation to uphold. One of these days you’re gonna have to come out of the lies you’ve told.” The melody is catchy too, and the song is saved from being judgmental as well because she speaks to herself in the last verse, saying she’ll have to change her ways and “one of these days, you’re gonna have to get down on your knees and pray.” It’s like a Kacey Musgraves song but less confrontational.

“Bittersweet,” the album’s title track, is a duet with fellow Australian singer Bernard Fanning. Their voices work well together in this song as they speculate on their former love and whether they should get back together. I can’t say enough about the excellent songwriting on this album, and “Too Late To Save Me” gives us more of it. There is something so honest about a song that opens like this: “They hear me cry, they hear me roar, they call me late, they call me whore.” It’s a song about a prostitute trying to cope with her life and wondering if God can still save her. Again, the banjo drives the beat of this rocking song and the instrumentation goes well with the lyrics. “Christmas Day” is another song with a religious theme; here Kasey tells the story of Mary and Joseph from a more romantic perspective. It is less a Christmas song and more a country love song, and it works very well on the album. Bittersweet closes with “I’m Alive,” a bluegrass song where the banjo that backed many of the songs basically takes over. It’s a celebratory song that sees Kasey coming out on top and thankful to be alive after hard times. She mentions that she “drank like a bitch” and “made it through the hardest fucking year,” which again adds to the honesty of the album. I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard “whore” and “bitch” uttered in a country album, and there’s something very real about it that is missing in much of today’s country. I’m not saying you have to say things like that to be real, but their presence proves that what we’re hearing from Kasey Chambers is indeed real songwriting coming from her perspective rather than polished-up radio hits that tell us little more about the actual artist than that they want to sell records.

This is a fantastic album, and Kasey Chambers is a name you should be familiar with. She’s Australia’s hidden gem, and this album proves it. As I said earlier, it should tell you a lot about the quality of this music that I found time to review it within one day of ever listening to a Kasey Chambers song.

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