Song Review: Carrie Underwood’s “The Champion” (featuring Ludacris)

Super bowl Anthem Rating: 5/10
Overall Rating as a Song: 2/10

So let’s assume this song stays a sports thing. Carrie Underwood and Ludacris are a terrible pair on paper, but maybe I can see appealing to a wider audience with this collaboration. The lyrics are generic, but maybe this is also what you need, just something to hype people up for the Super Bowl. I could take it or leave it I guess, but it serves its purpose and isn’t really hurting anyone at all with is existence.

But let’s now view this as a Carrie Underwood song, and actually, let’s not even take into account that it might be sent to country radio. Obviously it’s pop and has no shred of country in it whatsoever, and if it gets serviced to the country airwaves, this will be another problem altogether, but for a moment, let’s ignore this because of the artist in question. Carrie Underwood has never claimed to be strictly country, has always released pop singles, and has even sent songs to pop radio. She’s never been holding the torch for traditional country, even if she’s been a beacon of talent in the mainstream, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that this single favors electronic beats over fiddle and steel.

What should be a surprise, however, and should be met with disgust by all Carrie Underwood fans everywhere, is the absolute butchering of a world-class voice by one, distorting and transforming her to sound almost robotic, and two, by forcing her to sing something so lacking in any measurable melody. This song relies on rhythm, except for one or two spots before the chorus where you hear Carrie break free and subsequently weep for the fact that her voice is kept constrained to these four or five notes and choppy rhythms. Carrie Underwood is better, and indeed, this song could have been better even for what it is had her voice been allowed to shine. This is Underwood’s best quality, and it’s being utterly ignored here. And let’s hope this is a standalone single and not some horrifying glimpse into the sound of her next album; country pop is one thing, straight pop is another, but singing pop infused with hip-hop phrasing and beats is on quite a different level and does not suit the particular vocal quality and talents of Carrie Underwood. The voice that gave us the stunning tribute to country’s fallen greats and the Las Vegas victims on live television should not be forced into these boxes in some sort of misguided effort to stay relevant.

And what about the part of Ludacris in all this? Well, admittedly, the spelling out of “champion” is a bit irritating, but his part actually comes off better than Carrie’s, and well it should, because Ludacris is at least in his lane here. Carrie Underwood doesn’t even sound comfortable singing this–which almost makes too much sense since she doesn’t ever sing stuff like this…but I digress.

But I don’t want to focus too much on Ludacris, for if this does stay a sports anthem, or even if it goes to pop radio, there won’t really be an issue with him. If this comes to country radio, again, obviously it’s a different story, but for now, Ludacris is not the problem with this song. The problem is it doesn’t fit Carrie Underwood in the slightest. So let’s hope it stays a harmless NFL hype song, and that her subsequent singles and album won’t carry this influence–because this, friends, is not Carrie Underwood, and it shows.

Album Review: Teea Goans – Swing, Shuffle And Sway

Rating: 7.5/10

I always get excited when I discover a new traditional country singer, particularly if that vocalist also happens to be female. Therefore, when I saw Trigger from Saving Country Music talking about Teea Goans in those terms, I knew I had to check her out.

It was love at first listen when I heard the opening notes of “Go Down Swinging’”. It’s a shuffle featuring fiddle and steel, all about how much she loves swing and country music. With her high, clear voice, I admired Teea Goans’ singing as well. The next song slows things down. “I’d Be a Legend in my Time” is all about how if heartache and sadness brought fame, she’d be a legend. It’s a good cover, for sure. She is able to deliver the song in such a way that you really feel the emotion.

“Heart Over Mind” tells of a woman who knows she should leave her partner, but then, he makes the woman think he loves her, and her heart won’t let her end things. This is yet another shuffle, and I have to say that this is very welcome since a lot of albums are filled with more slow songs. “That’s the Thing About Love” has lyrics that revolve around the myriad of feelings one can get while infatuated with someone. While not an especially memorable song, the melody and Teea Goans’ pleasant voice make it listenable.

Next is my favorite song off of this album. “Just Because She Always Has” tells the tale of a man who took his partner for granted. She always cleaned up for him and did the cooking. She had always loved him despite everything, but just because she had always done and felt those things before didn’t mean that she always would. This is an amazing country song, and I highly recommend that if you don’t listen to the whole album, you should check out this individual song, at least. “It Ain’t Nothin’” is a cover sung with Mark Wills. I confess, I keep hearing Randy Travis singing this, but I found it an good cover. It’s upbeat and fun.

“Tell Me I’m Crazy” is another sad country song, with some awesome steel guitar. The woman wants to be convinced that she’s crazy and her relationship isn’t ending. This is probably my second favorite track off of this album. “Steel Guitar Rag” is fun and upbeat, and it’s all about how great the steel guitar sounds. Since I’m all for more steel guitar, I found this song fun. I haven’t heard the original, but I do like this version.

“I Know the Lord Will Stand By Me” is one of two gospel songs on this project. It’s upbeat with some really well-done piano, all about how she knows that Jesus will keep her safe and happy. “You Don’t Know Me” is a song about unrequited love. The woman in the song says that even though she’s been friends with a man for years, he doesn’t really know her. This is because she has dreams of him and wants to be with him. I find this song pretty forgettable, but it’s not bad.

“A Way To Survive” features some more awesome fiddle. It’s a song wherein the protagonist keeps her former lover’s picture and letters. Reliving her memories is what kept her going and helped her survive. The last song is the other gospel track on the album. “Mercy Walked In” is about a person who was guilty of something unspecified, but then was let go due to mercy. For me, this song gives way too few details. I know logically that it’s all about God and his mercy, but the vagueness keeps me from really getting emotionally into the song.

Overall, I quite like this album. I think Teea Goans is a singer to watch if you like more traditional country music. I even like that she was willing to include some gospel on this album, since there are some gospel influences in country. The instrumentation on here is stellar, too. There is a pretty even number of fast and slow songs, which makes a refreshing change from all of the slower albums. In short, if you are looking for a female singer who does traditional country right, look no further than Teea Goans.

Buy The Album On Amazon

Starting the New Year off Right with Jason Isbell

It is the #1 goal of this outlet and especially for myself in 2018 to see and discuss more live shows. We stress the importance of albums, but in this streaming age, it’s arguably even more vital to go out and support our favorite artists through ticket sales and buying merchandise. Plus, seeing a live performance often provides a new appreciation for an artist you may already love, and it can also make us fans of artists whose studio recordings we don’t necessarily enjoy.

Both of these things happened for me on Thursday night, (Jan. 4th), at the Criterion in Oklahoma City, where I saw James McMurtry and Jason Isbell. Mostly, I’ll keep this focused on Isbell, but I’ll say this about McMurtry–here’s an independent/Americana artist I have respected but never really gotten into in the past. Seeing him live made me understand exactly what people like about his music. Honestly, he’s a better vocalist live than his studio recordings would have us believe, and I enjoyed quite a lot of these songs. It’s a testament to the value of live music in general, and why we shouldn’t pass judgment on an artist solely on the basis of their recorded material.

As for Jason Isbell, I’m not sure I can put into words his ability to interpret a lyric–and not only that, but to take a heartbreaking tear-jerker of a song like “Speed Trap Town” and make it work in a live setting with people singing along to it. He proves that you don’t have to be singing happy, fun songs live to move an audience, or even to leave an audience feeling happier and carefree when you’re done. And my apologies to the song “Anxiety,” a track which I underrated considerably on Isbell’s latest record. Granted, I still prefer the live version, but hearing Jason’s live version makes the studio version all the more authentic and believable. On the record, it’s hard to tell how much of the song is personal to Jason and how much of it is just him writing about this issue for other people; when he comes out and opens a show with a song like this, with all his heart and soul in the words, with all the hopes of bonding with the crowd hinged on that song of desperation and depression, you know it means something to him. He doesn’t come out singing something content, or even something like “Cumberland Gap,” an admittedly emotional song but one which at least is rocking and fun. Instead, he comes out with “Anxiety” and leaves the listener with no illusions about what this is going to be.

And that’s why, when you get to “Speed Trap Town” and all the other songs like it in Jason Isbell’s catalog not necessarily “suited” for such things as live shows, you damn well pay attention. “Last of my Kind” cuts even more in a live setting, and “Hope the High road,” though I still don’t enjoy that song, is more convincing. And you’d have to be a fool to do “If we Were Vampires,” a song about death and treasuring every moment with the one you love as if it were your last, as an encore of all things, but Jason Isbell can, and did.

And all of that works because he sings with such conviction that you feel whatever emotion he’s conveying, and that’s the beauty in live music, and music in general, and what makes Jason Isbell able to connect with so many people and his music able to be classified in so many genres. He just sings what he feels, and the results are proving to be timeless, as he’s becoming the face of independent music and a voice for this insurgency in the mainstream by music of substance and quality. This is exactly the kind of artist you should make it a point to see live even if you’re not really an Isbell fan because he embodies what is unique and beautiful about the experience of sharing live music. And if you’re not really an Isbell fan, don’t worry–after seeing him live, you certainly will be.

Best Live Songs: “Anxiety,” “Tupelo,” “Last of my Kind”

New Year’s Resolutions/Goals for 2018

Just some things we’ve discussed and would like to try our best to make happen in 2018…of course, we know the fate of many New Year’s resolutions, so bear that in mind, and be patient, as this is a reminder to ourselves and by no means a guarantee that these things will happen, even as much as we’d like to see them. But here are some things we have in mind for Country Exclusive in the coming year, and feel free to add any thoughts/suggestions.

1. Lots More Live/Concert Reviewing
So much of independent music is reliant upon ticket sales and buying merchandise; even as much as we support albums in this scene, live music is still the bread and butter of so many of these artists and a great way to both support them and see them in another light. The goal is to see and talk about a live show once a month, but obviously this will be affected by availability, finances, and possibly by the small blind hindrance of transportation depending on where things are. This one will be starting off perfectly right, however, as I am having the great fortune of seeing Jason Isbell on Thursday night.

2. Playlists
Let’s face it, people often just listen to these more than albums, and one thing I wanted to do in 2017 was provide playlists more often so that people could sample more music. It didn’t happen until the end of the year, but that one seems to have been very well-received on both platforms, so hopefully, we can provide them more often on both Apple Music and Spotify. This one could be dependent on some behind-the-scenes factors as well, mostly due to the fact that neither Brianna nor I use Spotify and would primarily be utilizing our resident visual consultant Zack for that particular platform.

3. Return of the Reflections
They’re not coming back every week, or rather, they’re not coming back every week unless we have something to say every week. They’re not coming back scheduled, and they never went away because of anything other than time constraints during the last quarter of the year, but our features on older music will continue proudly. This is an area sorely lacking in coverage on these independent sites, and we enjoy writing them as much as people seem to like reading them.

4. More Bluegrass
Yeah, I said this in 2017 as well, but I didn’t write it down–and maybe, if I had, it would have been there to stare at me as I failed spectacularly to cover this great subgenre of music. We’ll try to do better here in 2018.

5. Continuing to Highlight Unique Artists
One of the coolest things about this year’s top albums list was that several of the entries were albums that only Country exclusive covered. Both Brianna and i discovered and reviewed material here not covered by any other independent outlet this year, and we seek to continue this in 2018, so that even more music can be heard and appreciated.

6. More Coverage
In 2017, we ended with 80 albums/EP’s reviewed and 27 featured in Memorable Songs, for a total of 107 albums covered here, not counting reflections and non-country stuff. I don’t want to set a specific goal for 2018 because I refuse to sit down and write about something just to fill a quota; rather, I want to write because I feel passion about the subject. But the hope is still to cover more music, as it was doable in 2017. Collaborative reviews will continue, as will the Memorable Songs feature that seeks to highlight good music from mediocre and forgettable albums, albums we heard and considered but did not review in full.

7. And finally, just to continue to be an honest, equal-opportunity establishment that answers to no one and spreads good music. We look forward to sharing more great music with you all in the coming year!

Album Review: Emily Herring–Gliding

Rating: 7/10

How often on these endless reality shows and talent competitions do we see judges and vocal coaches stress the importance of individuality? They are not only looking for raw talent, but something unique and fresh and different. And why not, when so much of popular music continues to pump out more of the same ideas from different voices? Any music class will tell you that music cannot expand further, that at this point, it’s just rehashing old ways and modes of doing the same things–this is one of the biggest criticisms of contemporary music by those who study classical and believe modern music to be somehow inferior to that discipline. So it’s up to those makers of modern music to work within the confines of their craft to continue to stand out and present us with new ideas. And country music is often regarded as one of the most restrictive genres in which to create things, so it’s even more impressive when you see a country artist proving all of these theories wrong.

That is what we see with Emily Herring’s latest album, Gliding, as she presents a traditional approach heavily blended with influences of Western swing. So many country artists today in the independent realms are doing this east Nashville/Americana sound that by now has been absolutely done to death to the point it’s about the least original and most clichéd thing you can possibly do outside the mainstream, or they’re mixing in the raw rock influences of Red dirt, or they’re making West Coast country with a modern take on the polished Nashville sound. This isn’t any of that, it’s something all its own, and yet it’s more traditional than many records released this year. Herring’s influence comes closer to that of Bob Wills than anything else, but this record is not trapped in that time period either, as she’s got a voice reminiscent of Robyn Ludwick or perhaps Tanya Tucker, which lends itself to harder mixes of country and rock and gives this album yet another unique quality.

But neither Ludwick nor Tucker possess the falsetto of Emily Herring, an addition which renders her able to pull off softer, more vulnerable songs like “Midnight” and “Yellow Mailbox” right along with some of the harder stuff like the title track and the painfully honest “Right Behind Her.” This one is the highlight of the record, as she lays out the truth that she literally doesn’t know if she can go on living without her mother being there for her. “If my mother were to die, I fear that I’d be right behind her,” cuts even more when you know that her mother did die in the final stages of this album’s making. That bluntness in her writing comes out on the closer, “Getting By,” also, as she describes her days as a mechanic and only being responsible for herself, trying to stretch a dime in order to survive.

This album needed some moments of levity to brighten the mood, and they come in the form of two covers, “All the Millers in Milwaukee” and “Semi Truck.” The former especially suits Emily and her voice and allows more of the fun side of her personality to stand out. It also fits more on the record as a whole than the latter because although light, it’s still a breakup song like much of the more serious material. There’s another lighter moment in the Western swing-infused “Best Thing I’ve Seen Yet,” and although it’s not a personal favorite, it adds balance to the album and shows another, more tender side of Emily Herring.

This album is not without its flaws, and it could have used perhaps another jolt of energy and maybe some sharper songwriting in places, but it’s still a good, promising record from Herring and one that is worth checking out, if only for its unique nature. Its propensity to draw from the influences of Western swing, combined with a voice like Emily’s, suited more for classic rock or harder country but somehow lending itself to these songs very well, makes this album intriguing and certainly memorable in the country space. It might not be a record you love on first listen; rather, it’s more an acquired thing, a potential you see in a song or two that unveils itself after a few listens to the whole album. In the end, it’s that potential which shines brightest about this release, and Emily Herring becomes another cool discovery of 2017, even if the year is nearly over. Not an album, and certainly not an artist, to be overlooked.

Buy the Album

The Most Destructive Criticism is Indifference