Album Review: Jason Isbell–Something More Than Free

Rating: 9/10

Jason Isbell follows up the critically acclaimed Southeastern (2013) with Something More Than Free. He has been praised for his excellent songwriting, and while it is justified, I felt that Southeastern was dry in places because of it. This is probably just personal taste–I don’t tend to like dark albums–but though I knew him to be talented, I found that album to be pretty boring. There are a lot of Isbell lovers out there, so please understand this is in no way a reflection of his talent, just personal taste. However, I found Something More than Free to raise the bar that many felt Southeastern set–because while the excellent songwriting is still there, it is not at the expense of the melody, and these songs are much more relatable. I found much more I could connect with in this album. People who already love Isbell–and there are many–will love this album. Those who weren’t sold before–and there were many of them as well–should check this album out.

The album opens with “If it Takes a Lifetime,” which finds the narrator searching for happiness and determined to find it if it takes him a lifetime. The track is lighthearted and immediately refreshing after the general darkness of Southeastern. Next is “24 Frames,” an excellent track about how short life is and how before you know it, it could all be gone. While the message is deep, the lyrics are light, so it does not leave you feeling utterly depressed; it’s a great balance. Next is “Flagship,” and I know a lot of people like this song, but it just does not connect with me, and here’s where the album falls from a 10 to a 9. “Flagship” is a love song, and it is marked by Jason’s excellent songwriting, but for me, the lines are so “deep,” for lack of a better word, that they aren’t relatable. I like the acoustic guitar, but I am a little bored by the melody.

“How to Forget” is an upbeat song about forgetting an old love. The melody is catchy and reminds me of something a 70’s Southern rock band might have sung. “Children of Children” is autobiographical but still relatable. Here, Isbell tells of being raised by his mother, who had him when she was a teenager. “All the years I took from her, just by being born”–what an excellent line. “Life You Chose” is an upbeat song asking an old flame if she is happy in her current life. “Are you livin’ the life you chose, are you livin’ the life that chose you?”–another excellent line that will hit many differently. The title track is an excellent song where Jason sings about thanking God for the work and looking forward to the day when he will have his reward. He says he works for “something more than free.”

If you only listen to one song on this album, please make it “Speed Trap Town.” This is about a teenage boy saying goodbye to his father in a hospital bed. I will post the opening lines here, as that is what hooked me.

She said it’s none of my business, but it breaks my heart
Dropped a dozen cheap roses in my shopping cart
Made it out to the truck without breaking down
Everybody knows you in a speed trap town
Well, it’s a Thursday night, but there’s a high school game
Sneak a bottle up the bleachers and forget my name
These 5A bastards run a shallow cross
It’s a boy’s last dream, and a man’s first loss

“Hudson Commodore” is a song about an independent woman in the Great Depression. I payed more attention to the music in this song than the lyrics. This is not a bad thing, as the 400 Unit is an excellent band. The same is true for “Palmetto Rose,” a Southern rock tribute to South Carolina, which Isbell calls the “iodine state.” This is a close second to “Speed Trap Town.” The album closes with “To a Band that I Loved” which is just that–a song about a band that Jason loved. It’s a good way to close this excellent album.

This album is great, and if you like Americana or Southern rock, or if you just like good, relatable songwriting, you should check it out.

Listen to Album

Updated: Stoney LaRue Arrested and Charged with Domestic Violence

Red dirt artist Stoney LaRue was arrested early Monday morning (July 20th) and charged with domestic abuse for allegedly pushing his girlfriend down a staircase. According to the Oklahoma City police department, they were dispatched to the apartment at approximately 7:30 A.M. The victim, Amanda Winsworth, told police that Stoney LaRue (Phillips) and Richa Chandra had been out drinking and came home around 4 A.M. The victim went out to her car to sleep because she had to leave for work in a few hours. At 6:50 A.M., she came inside and began getting ready. Her hair dryer woke Phillips, which started an argument. Phillips then threw her makeup bag, curling iron, and other toiletries down the stairs. When she bent to retrieve the items, she claims he pushed her from behind, causing her to fall headfirst down the staircase. He was arrested on charges of domestic vilence, and Chandra was arrested on charges of public drunk after attempting to interfere with his arrest. Police noted scratches and scrapes on the victim’s legs and back.

Early this morning, (July 21st), Amanda Winsworth posted this on Twitter: “The happenings of this incident have been blown out of proportion by the media. I was never struck by my boyfriend. Please respect our privacy while we fix this matter.” This story will be updated when we have more information.

Update

Stoney LaRue has released the following statement concerning the charges:

I want to apologize to my family, my friends and my fans for the recent circumstances that have come to light. I am going to take some time to work on myself. I will be entering an intensive and extensive program, and I appreciate your thoughts and good wishes for me during this trying time. Please check my website and Facebook page for updates on my upcoming tour dates, but most importantly, I appreciate your support during this time.

Album Review: Alan Jackson–Angels and Alcohol

Rating: 9/10

Well, it has finally come–the long-awaited release of music on Fridays, and with this change, the release of arguably two of the most anticipated albums of 2015. Americana fans finally get Jason IsBell’s Something More Than Free (hopefully I will get time to review this later this week, but if not, it comes recommended), and for country fans, Alan Jackson’s Angels and Alcohol It should be noted that I like to avoid streaming albums ahead of time if at all possible, and so the first time I heard Alan Jackson’s album was when I purchased it at 6 A.M. Saturday, after two long days moving and about four hours of sleep. Having said that, this album hit me in one of the rare moments of silence I’ve had in the past week, and I’m glad to say it delivered.

The album opens with “You Can Always Come Home,” about a father telling his child to chase their dreams but to know they always have a place to come back to. The instrumentation in this song is great, with acoustic guitars and fiddles, and I found myself feeling an unintended double meaning in this song. Alan sings, “No matter how right or wrong you’ve gone, you can always come home.” After all the bro country and pop country and rock country and rap country and everything else disguised as country, this truly did feel like coming home. To have a mainstream album open with an acoustic guitar in 2015 is shocking, and in a good way. It was refreshing to say the least. The next song, “You Never Know” is a fun, upbeat song about finding love in strange places, and again the strength is the music. Here there was even a piano solo. I pay attention to lyrics more than music in songs as a rule, and the toll the false country has taken on lyrics has always hit me hardest, but this album made me really miss the country sound in a way I haven’t in a long time. I guess when you get used to hearing hip-hop and pop on country radio on a daily basis, you become immune to it.

The title track is my favorite–here the lyrics and instrumentation are both great. Alan sings, “You can’t mix angels and alcohol” and “I don’t think God meant for them to get along.” I won’t say anymore, just listen to it, it’s a great song. Next is “Gone Before You Met Me,” which describes a dream in which Alan meets Tom Sawyer and Jack Kerouac and has a nightmare about never meeting his wife. He wakes up to find her there and tells Tom and Jack to “ramble on without me.” It’s a song that potentially could do well on radio, and with the absence of George Strait, Alan might have a slightly better chance at airplay. “The One You’re Waiting On” is an excellent song told from the point of view of a man watching a woman across the room check her phone. She’s brushing men off and drinking wine while he speculates about whether the guy she’s waiting on is worth it. Next is the album’s lead single, “Jim and Jack and Hank,” an upbeat song about a man telling his girlfriend, as she’s leaving him, to go ahead because “I’ve got Jim and Jack and Hank.” He tells her, among other things, to “take your string bikkinis, your apple martinis” and “What’s left there in the bank.”

“I Leave a Light on” is a classic heartbreak song about leaving the light on for an ex’s memory. “Flaws” is the only flaw in the album–and it’s not a bad song, just doesn’t measure up to the rest. It tries to be too humorous and therefore loses the message a little, which is basically that no one is perfect. I honestly hated this song but the line “we’re all made with water, dirt, and grace” redeemed it somewhat. “When God Paints” follows this, wich also helps “Flaws,” because it acts as a second part to the story. It talks of the bigger picture and the amazing things that happen “when God paints.” Alan mentions that it’s not “always black-and-white or well-defined when God paints,” an excellent line. The album closes with “Mexico, Tequila, and Me” which is a song about exactly that. It’s the song that would sell on country radio, except that some bro country artist would sing it with hip-hop beats and bad rapping, whereas Alan keeps it country. So it probably won’t get airplay, but in a perfect world, it’s the kind of song that would. All in all, Angels and Alcohol is a great album, and in the absence of George Strait, Alan Jackson is our reigning country king. He has delivered, and I hope he will continue making refreshingly good country music.

Listen to album

Random Thoughts of the Week: Luke Bryan Apoligizes, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert Announce Divorce

This column has previously been on Sundays, but this weekend I was moving so it comes late. However, since music is now being released on Friday, changing the times for album reviews, this column will move to Tuesdays starting next week.

Last week, I used the Random Thoughts column to rip apart Luke Bryan for his disparaging comments about outlaw country, as well as his mischaracterization of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard. Since then, Luke has called the families of Waylon and Merle to personally apologize for his actions. Both Shooter Jennings and Ben Haggard have come forward publicly about this to say basically that this is water under the bridge, and that Luke did an honorable thing by apologizing privately. I happen to agree. Whether he meant to disparage them or not, he proved by apologizing personally that he truly cared about how it affected them. he had already tried to repair his public image on Twitter–and that is all most artists would have done. Regardless of my opinion of Luke or his music, this was a very classy thing. Last week, my post was entitled “What Happened to the Class in Country?” and this was Luke showing he still has some.

Earlier today, (July 20th), Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert released a statement announcing their divorce. They said this was not the future they had “envisioned” and added that “it is with heavy hearts that we move forward separately.” The statement continued, “We are real people, with real lives, with real families, friends, and colleagues. Therefore, we kindly ask for privacy and compassion concerning this very personal matter.” In respect to them, we should not, and I will not, seek to decipher what led to the divorce. However, I do wonder how it will affect their careers. Will Blake Shelton lose some relevancy? He gained much more radio relevancy when he married Miranda, although this was also around the time he started on “The Voice,” which certainly played a role. If this had happened a few years ago, he might have been in trouble, but now, with the male-dominated radio waves and his job on “The Voice,” I think he will not be affected, but who knows? Miranda could continue to lose airplay as well–she is a female and that is an automatic strike against her, and now she won’t be married to Blake, so radio will probably give her less of a chance. Their dominance at the ACM and CMA Awards will certainly end, and Carrie Underwood will have a well-deserved shot at Top Female Vocalist. Personally, I hope neither of their careers is seriously hurt, but I prefer Miranda over Blake, and I would hate to see one less female on the radio because she lost her “ticket.” As I mentioned, I will not speculate on what led to the divorce, but we all know if cheating was indeed involved–as many gossip sites would have us believe–Miranda will put it in her next album. However, their privacy should be respected. Just because we hear their music and see Blake on TV does not mean their lives should be put under a microscope.

Tomato of the Week: Ashley Monroe

Her new album comes out Friday–I have been waiting for this since her last album–so what better day to feature her? Here’s the lead single from the new album, The Blade

Random Country Suggestion: Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton, “Better in the Long Run”

A song from happier times–incidentally, co-written by our featured female Ashley Monroe.

Non-Country Suggestion: Taylor Swift, 1989

I’m late to the party on this, as I could not stand Taylor’s previous album Red attempting to be both pop and country and thus failing at both. However, I recently bought 1989 and now that she is not pretending and is embracing a pop sound, Taylor is better than she ever was in country. If you like pop, give it a listen.

Listen to 1989

That’s all for this week’s Random Thoughts!

Female Fridays: Featuring Sunny Sweeney

Last week, I featured Katie Armiger and noted that she is one of my favorite underrated female country artists. I love her sound because it is pop country that is done very well. This week, I am featuring Sunny Sweeney, one of my favorite traditional country females.

How You Might Know Sunny

Sunny Sweeney had a top 10 hit in 2011 with “From a Table Away” which many will remember. She was also an opener on Miranda Lambert’s recent Certified Platinum tour.

Bio

Sunny Sweeney (born December 7, 1976 in Houston, Texas, and raised in Longview), got a degree in public relations and even tried to make it in the “real” world for awhile. That is, until one day when she picked up a guitar and made the life-changing decision to pursue singing and songwriting. She began playing several shows a week in Texas and quickly had a growing fan base. In 2006, she independently released Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame, which, according to her Web site,
found its way onto the desk of Big Machine Records president Scott Borchetta
This turn of events led to a record deal and the re-release of the album in 2007, with three singles making the Texas Music Chart.

In 2010, after signing to Republic Nashville, a joint venture between Big Machine and Universal Republic, Sunny released the well-known “From a Table Away.” This has been her highest charting single–on a major chart–and peaked at No. 10. it was followed by the excellent album Concrete. Concrete was my first experience with Sunny Sweeney, and I couldn’t wait to hear more music from her. Other less-known singles from that album include “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving” and “Drink Myself Single.”

For whatever reason–we can speculate on many–Sunny Sweeney and Big Machine parted ways after this album. In 2014, Sunny released her third album, Provoked with Thirty Tigers, the self-proclaimed
“home for independent artists.”
The first two singles, “Bad Girl Phase” and “My Bed”–a duet with fellow Texas singer Will Hoge that Sunny co-wrote with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley of the Pistol Annies–hit No. 1 on the Texas Music Chart. This makes Sunny Sweeney the first female to have two consecutive singles hit No. 1 on the Texas charts. She said of the experience, “I am very honored to be the first female to ever have two number one songs back to back on the Texas music chart…I believe firmly that if you just keep following your heart and working your butt off, you will see the payoff and positive results.”

Why Sunny Belongs on Country Radio

Why? Well, for one, she’s already proved she can get chart success with “From a Table Away.” That song wasn’t a pop song either–it was a traditional sounding song about the “other woman” witnessing the husband, whom she thought was ready to leave his wife, from a table away with his wife. The husband is obviously still in love with the wife, and the other woman is confronting him later after having seen them together. This song did well on the charts, so why is it inconceivable to think Sunny could have radio success again? Not to mention she’s doing very well on the Texas Music Chart right now–proving that if actual country music was getting played on “country” radio, she would be highly successful. Also, much like Katie Armiger, her songwriting is relatable and autobiographical. However, unlike younger artists, such as Katie and Taylor Swift, Sunny writes from a place of more experience. Her songs speak of marriage, divorce, and adultery–many times from the view of the “other woman,”–in a way that says she’s lived the lyrics.

In addition, Sunny got a lot of exposure from Miranda Lambert’s Certified Platinum tour, so many more people should know her music now. But sadly, when I was standing in line before the doors opened to see Miranda on that very tour, a local DJ was spinning Miranda Lambert and Justin Moore hits (Justin was the other opener.) After awhile, he called out, “All of you know Miranda Lambert” to which we all cheered. Then he added, “But how many of you know Sunny Sweeney?” A handful of people answered. He said, “Well, here’s one of her songs,” and played “Bad Girl Phase,” one of the recent No. 1 Texas Music Chart singles. For many standing around me, that was the first they’d heard of Sunny Sweeney, and that speaks volumes. The same crowd that was cheering for Miranda Lambert should have been cheering for Sunny Sweeney, and yet most did not even know her name.

Tracks I Recommend

You cannot go wrong with either Concrete or Provoked, but if I had to narrow it down, here’s where I’d start.

1. Amy–Concrete
2. From a Table Away–Concrete
3. Fall for Me–Concrete
4. Staying’s Worse Than Leaving–Concrete
5. My Bed (featuring Will Hoge)–Provoked
6. Carolina on the Line–Provoked
7. Find Me–Provoked
8. Bad Girl Phase–Provoked
9. You Don’t Know Your Husband–Provoked
10. Drink Myself Single–Concrete
11. Refresh my Memory–Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame

Listen to Concrete

Listen to Provoked

These are the two No. 1 Texas Music Chart singles. Both are great, but my personal favorite is “My Bed.”

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