Tag Archives: country rock

Album Review: Travis Meadows–First Cigarette

Rating: 8/10

Travis Meadows adds his name to the growing list of professional songwriters who are gaining a name for themselves and finding more success with their own material. As for songs written by Meadows, try “Knives of New Orleans” by Eric Church, “Riser” by Dierks Bentley, and “What We Ain’t Got” by Jake Owen. These should be enough to get your attention and keep his third album, First Cigarette, firmly on your radar.

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2017 criticizing various independent/Americana singers for their vocals. It doesn’t matter if you can write a good song if you can’t remain on pitch and/or sing with any emotion. But there’s another side to this too, and that’s understanding your tone as a singer and writing and performing songs to suit you. Travis Meadows brings a weathered, unpolished quality to his singing, and no, he’s not the greatest vocalist in that sense, but he is a fine interpreter, able to capture perfectly all the raw emotion on this record. Plus, he can indeed stay on pitch, so that’s just a bonus…but I digress. His tone may not be for everyone, but he utilizes it well here, allowing it to become a feature rather than a flaw.

And his tone actually suits the material here very well, speaking also to his talent as a songwriter, his ability to write according to his vocal strengths. The rough edges in his voice only serve to elevate this particular record because it’s a self-reflective album, sometimes looking back on the past and other times hopeful for the future, at once wistful and content. “Sideways” sets the mood perfectly, opening the album with the hard-hitting statement: “If I could buy myself a conscience that wasn’t broken, Mend every fence I drove my hard head through. Re-lock all the doors I wish I’d never opened, unlearn the things I wish I never Knew.” Meadows thinks back with nostalgia on his youth on “McDowell road” and “Pray for Jungleland,” and looks forward to making life better for his son on “Travelin’ Bone.” (And by the way, “Pray for Jungleland” is actually a good example of how a song about remembering some girl in tight jeans in your car can actually convey a real emotion and tell a real story.) He’s leaning on friends to help him through hard times on “Better Boat” and seems restless on “Hungry,” but he’s perfectly happy with his life on “Guy Like Me.” It all appears to come together on the title track, as he has learned to appreciate the little things in life, like that feeling of the first cigarette in the morning. He also states that he’s “a little more content with who I am than who I was,” which seems to be the thesis of this whole thing.

The production is another thing I’ve harped on many times in 2017, and yet this record manages to get it exactly right. Travis Meadows said that can be attributed to his producers, Jeremy Spillman and Jay Joyce, wanting it to sound like Travis would sound live in a bar. And it does sound rather organic and unpolished like that, very real and raw and fitting for this journey. Also, every song flows straight into the next, with little instrumental interludes to connect the tracks, so you take this trip right along with Travis. It’s a small detail, but it really adds a lot to this album and the sentiments being conveyed here. It makes this not an album of different songs about finding contentment with who you are and where you’ve been, but rather a single experience, a process that is being carried out throughout the record.

The album needed some brighter moments to lighten the mood and in turn make the serious, reflective stuff stand out all the more, and we get that in several places. It doesn’t quite work on “Underdogs,” as this one is kind of generic and doesn’t really say much when you get right down to it. There are a thousand songs out there like this, and while it will probably really excite live crowds, it doesn’t exactly add much to the project. It doesn’t necessarily take away much either, but lighter moments are pulled off better with “Guy Like Me” and “Long Live Cool.” The former has the personal detail which “Underdogs” lacks, seeing Travis content and happy with his life and circumstances. The latter is a nice, catchy ode to rock ‘n’ roll. This one features some lively harmonica and some nice electric guitar. This one fits well within the album context despite it being lighthearted because it carries that nostalgia so often explored on this record.

First Cigarette is getting slightly underappreciated, and I honestly can’t understand why. Travis Meadows isn’t the greatest vocalist in the world, but the roughness in his voice only adds to this record. The production is some of the best I’ve heard this year, and there’s enough sonic variety to keep it from being sleepy. The writing is nice too, and there’s a thematic structure to this album as well, not something we see on many records these days. Not a concept record, but definitely one continuous journey that finds its conclusion in the title track. It’s not a perfect album, but it’s a damn good one and is not to be overlooked in the frenzy of year-end lists. Highly recommend giving this a listen.

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Album Review: Ned LeDoux–Sagebrush

Rating: 7/10

So, this is one of those albums that it’s a bit hard to talk about, and there’s not a ton to say about it in the first place, but that doesn’t mean it should be overlooked by any means. It’s an album that falls into that solid, consistent category, refreshing and comforting but not necessarily groundbreaking. And if you know anything about Ned LeDoux or his intentions with this project, this is arguably doing everything it set out to accomplish. That’s not to say it’s a perfect record, or one of the best of the year, it’s just to say that it serves its purpose quite well, and for that, some might rate it higher than my solid 7.

If you’re unfamiliar with Ned LeDoux or his aims here, he’s essentially trying to honor his father Chris LeDoux, a rodeo cowboy who sold his records independently out of a truck and wrote songs about cowboy themes and simple living. I wrote that we shouldn’t fixate on the fact that Lukas Nelson is Willie’s son, but with Ned, he wants you to remember his father. He’s going to make similar records, and you go into it knowing you’ll hear tales of the West, of eight-second rides, of endless stretches of the Wyoming prairie. And it works because like his father before him, he’s actually lived this life, so you can’t call him anything but authentic. And really, he’s making his father proud.

The biggest strength of this record, unlike oh, the majority of this year’s albums, is actually the production. It’s the western feel to this that keeps you listening, especially if you gravitate, as I do, toward western themes. The more country rock production serves to elevate many of these tracks, even when they’re lacking lyrically, and I’m glad these details were not overlooked or thought of as second to the lyrics.

Lyrics indeed are the weakest point of this record, and you aren’t really sold on Ned LeDoux as a lyricist at all until track four, when “Some People Do” comes on. This is an ode to the previously mentioned Wyoming prairie, complete with its bitter winters and miles of waterless land. But to the people that live here, it can be paradise. It reminds you that country is as much a story of the West as it is of the South, and you come away wondering why so few country projects lately explore this part of the genre’s heritage. “Better Part of Living” is also one of the better songs lyrically; this one deals more with life lessons and cautions us that the best things in life “can’t be measured out in pay.” For the traditionalists, this one is one of the most country, with some lovely steel echoing in the mix. And “The Hawk” is nothing less than a beautiful tribute to his father, stating that he believes his dad came back as a hawk to watch over their family. It seems there has been a hawk on the ranch ever since he died, always keeping watch over them. His dad dreamed that he could fly and be free like a hawk, and now he seems to be there with them. The simple acoustic guitar here really allows the words to be the focus, and I don’t know how anyone can come away from this song without being moved.

There are also a couple of covers of his father’s songs here. “Johnson County War” is one of the standouts despite this, giving us a great story song about the Powder river settlements in the 1880’s. There’s also a duet version of “This Cowboy’s Hat,” featuring, of all people, Chase Rice, who actually sounds surprisingly good here. This one tells of an encounter between a cowboy and a motorcycle gang. In the end, they realize they actually have a lot in common, as the cowboy’s hat is as important to him as their leather jackets are to them.

All in all, this is nothing earth-shattering, but it’s a solid, consistent effort that certainly does Chris LeDoux proud. And with songs like “Better Part of Living” and “Some People Do,” Ned LeDoux is showing his own potential as a songwriter as well. This is an album that’s going to appeal more to people who enjoy western themes, as well as to people who value interesting production more than groundbreaking lyrics. Nice, pleasant listen.

A final thought from Ned himself: “The Old West may have changed some, but it sure as hell ain’t dead.”

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Album Review: The Whiskey Gentry–Dead Ringer

Rating: 7.5/10

You know what the coolest thing about this little online blogging/music world is? It’s the friends you make through doing this, people that share a common interest and love for the same music. And one of the greatest parts of that has to be all the albums and artists friends and acquaintances of mine have sent me, not in the way of a publicist looking for a review, just as a friend looking to send me something I might like. I’ve got a “never-ending list” of these, especially since getting Twitter, and by all means, keep them coming. Anyway, The Whiskey Gentry here was one of these recommendations sent by a friend who thought I might enjoy them, and yes, they got moved straight to the front of the never-ending list just because that’s a badass name. The Whiskey Gentry? You’ve got my attention. It took awhile with this album, partly because it had to grow on me and mostly because I’ve had some stuff go on in my personal life that put me behind in writing, but I’ve discovered that not only do they have a cool name, The Whiskey Gentry have a pretty good new album here as well.

Actually, the front half of this album is pretty excellent. We’ve got a traveling musician theme running through this record, established with the opener, “Following You,” a reminder that all the other dreamers are looking up to you as you try to make it. I love the line, “the worst day on the road beats spreading paint,” as it seems to be a reminder to them as well as to the listener. The title track is a companion to this, as the lead singer, Lauren Staley, describes getting an English degree and being able to talk Shakespeare but really dreaming of being the “more famous girl on the radio” that people supposedly mistake her for. The lighthearted “Rock n Roll Band” fits this theme as well, and although it’s not quite as memorable as these two, it fits in with the whole atmosphere of this record. “Looking for Trouble” attempts to be a bit more serious, but the instrumentation is still quite lively, and Lauren’s voice, though admittedly weak on quite a few of these songs, shines here on a more subdued track. “Paris” is just, well, let’s use the band’s own description, stupid, but damn, it’s fun, and I just love this. And then if you thought all they did was play upbeat, fun stuff, “Paris” dissolves rather abruptly into “Kern River.” That same fragility in Lauren Staley’s voice works to perfection on this cover, adding a natural vulnerability to the song. This was a brilliant choice, and at track 6, I’ve no complaints with this album at all. Sure, her voice gets drowned out in places, but her personality and the lively, fun instrumentation more than make up for this. OH, and I haven’t said so yet, but this is pretty damn country, despite Apple Music amusingly calling it rock…guess they assumed because of the sheer number of boring, mid-tempo country/Americana releases in 2017, anything this upbeat and cheerful couldn’t possibly be classified as such…but I digress.

The back half does have some problems. I’ll isolate “Drinking Again” on this half because it’s just awesome, and I’ve been singing this for a week and a half. It’s about her going into rehab and pretending to care while she dreams of getting back to drinking. She’s trying to get her drinking under control, but she’s got zero intention of actually giving it up; “it’s time to start drinking again, but first I gotta make it one more day.” “Seven Year Ache” isn’t bad either–in fact, I love the arrangement–but the very frailty I pointed out earlier in her voice doesn’t suit this song, and as a huge fan of the Rosanne Cash original, I wouldn’t have wished Lauren Staley anywhere near this song. “Martha From Marfa” is meant to be stupid just like “Paris,” but it doesn’t pull it off as well, and “Say it Anyway,” although it has a good message, is just a little forgettable. The two slower songs at the end, though placed there to highlight a different side of the group, really don’t add much. The hook of “Is it Snowing Where You Are?” is just weird, and “If You Were an Astronaut” takes incredibly long to get to the point. I’ll give this one the fact that the point, once reached, is good; it’s quite a nice love song once you extract it from all the metaphors. These two, as I say, do show another side to the band and also showcase Lauren’s voice better, but I could have done without both of them. I wouldn’t call any of this especially bad, but we went from excellent to mediocre on the back half, except for “Drinking Again.”

So, yeah, this rating was a bit hard to assign because quite a bit of this album is outstanding, mixed in with some really average, unremarkable stuff. Take off the two final tracks, and we’ve got a ten-track 8.5/10 for sure. But this album is definitely worth hearing because there’s some really good stuff here, and also because it’s just so fun and lighthearted, and we haven’t gotten a lot of that this year. We haven’t gotten too much good true country anyway, let alone true country with this much energy and personality. So thanks for introducing me to The Whiskey Gentry, and now I’m passing them on to you all.

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Reflecting on: Travis Tritt–It’s All About to Change

Well, from the day we started doing these, I always knew I would cover Travis Tritt on here, and now seems like the perfect time since I am going to see him Friday. I went back and forth for an inordinate amount of time on which album to cover, considering his originals and various compilations. Over the years, I’ve worn out the album The Very Best of Travis Tritt, so ultimately I decided to cover an album not as familiar to me. I chose the album that has my two favorite Tritt songs, It’s All About to Change, but really any place is okay to start with Travis and his music.

Release Date: 1991
Style: traditional country infused with Southern rock
People Who Might Like This Album: those who like their country mixed with rock and grit
Standout Tracks: “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone who Cares),” “Anymore,” “Bible Belt,” “Nothing Short of Dying,” “If Hell Had a Jukebox,” “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin'”
Reflections: Travis Tritt said in one of the songs on his debut album that he vowed “I’d mix Southern rock and country, and that’s just what I did.” That’s really the best explanation of Tritt and his sound. He takes the best of both traditional country and Southern rock and blends them into a sound all his own, respecting country’s roots while being very modern and forward-thinking. Those that think country is boring, try saying that after “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin” or “Bible Belt.” Incidentally, the former features Marty Stuart which just adds to its overall coolness.

I mentioned this has my two favorite Travis Tritt songs. The first is “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares),” another country rock song where he tells his cheating ex who wants to come back home that she can call one of her “sordid affairs.” As the song says, he’s kind enough even to offer her a quarter. This song is probably the one he’s most known for, and it even made Saving Country Music’s Greatest songs of All Time which can’t be taken lightly. Incidentally,, it’s very much responsible for my current relationship too; it was a conversation about this song and Travis Tritt in general that started all of it. My other favorite is “Anymore,” where he’s telling a woman that even after much time has passed, he still loves her and he can’t keep pretending otherwise. It’s the first song of his I ever heard and one of the best examples of Travis doing more traditional country. It’s the marrying of country and rock that is his signature sound, but ballads like this and “Nothing Short of Dying” shouldn’t be overlooked either because he does these types of songs just as well. Actually, the video for “Anymore” was the first in a series of three about one character, and all three were ballads.

Like I say, there really isn’t a bad place to start with Travis Tritt, and he’s definitely an artist that you should know. From the more rock-leaning stuff to the traditional ballads, there’s something here for everyone, and this album is a good showcase of his variety in sound. So start here, and hopefully, this will make you a fan, and you will seek out more of his music.

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Album Review: Steve Earle & the Dukes–So You Wannabe an Outlaw

Rating: 8.5/10

I’m not really sure I need to write any kind of introduction to this; I’m pretty sure Steve Earle has been introducing this quite well on his own, and that may or may not be taking away from the music. So I’m going to take the advice from Steve’s own comment, and let this be about the songs. What I will say is that he stated both that he wanted to make a record inspired by the outlaws, and more specifically, Waylon, and that this record would be about dealing with loss. And what we get is basically exactly that–the front half is filled with badass, renegade/outlaw material–or at least what we might think of when referring to that term–and then the back half adds to the validity of it all by taking us on journeys of heartbreak, loneliness, and loss, and in the end, you’re left wondering if this outlaw thing is really all that great after all, and perhaps second-guessing your dream. And in a way, that separates this record from all the others trying to be cool outlaw because it shows all the sides to the story, the glamor along with the pain.

That’s not to say there aren’t painful realities on the first half. IN fact, the opener and title track starts the album by explaining all the things you have to go through if you really want to be an outlaw, albeit in a pretty lighthearted manner. Willie Nelson appears here, which adds to the message and the overall coolness of the song. You also have “Lookin’ For a Woman” and “If Mama Coulda seen Me,” both of which Earle wrote for the show Nashville–the former is a restless heartbreak song where the narrator is trying to find a woman who “Won’t do me like you,” and the latter is about a prisoner who is thankful that his mom died before she had to see him in chains. All of this half, however, is pretty upbeat, and even though the material is dark, some of the glamorous side of being an outlaw still shines forth in the attitude and in the cool blending of country and rock instrumentation. This half comes to a brilliant, angry climax with “Fixin’ To die”–this song is told from Death Row, and I didn’t mean to compare it to Chris Stapleton’s song “Death Row,” but that’s what happened. I said before that Stapleton’s didn’t quite have emotion even though he belted it–I know a lot of people disagreed, but the point I’m making is that whether it came through or not, Stapleton meant that song to be sad. When this opens and Steve Earle bellows, “I’m fixin’ to die, reckon I’m goin’ to hell” and then adds, “I’d be tellin’ you a lie if I told you I was takin’ it well,” for me, that captures all the emotions, from anger to sadness to regret. It’s an intense story and definitely a great way to complete this more rocking front half of the record.

It’s the back half, however, that really makes this album shine and adds an authenticity to these opening songs. It’s one thing to sing about being an outlaw for the sake of it, but when you get to stuff like “This is How it Ends” and “You Broke my Heart” and see there’s a tender side to this story, it really adds something to the whole project. Steve Earle mentioned loss, and it is explored in every form here, from the heartbreak in these two songs, the former of which features Miranda Lambert, to the poverty and self-doubt in the excellent “Walkin’ in LA” to the closer, “Goodbye Michelangelo,” a tribute to Guy Clark. “Walkin’ in LA” features Johnny Bush, the writer of “Whiskey River,” and it’s one of the best songs on this whole thing, despite it not being the most flashy. It’s one of those rare gems where the melody, the lyrics, and the instrumentation all work together flawlessly to form an incredible piece of music. The melody and beautiful acoustic guitar play in “Goodbye Michelangelo” really add to that song as well. It’s a great way to close the album.

As much as I loved this record, I do have a couple criticisms. There are a few songs that felt like filler; “Girl on the Mountain” was sandwiched between “This is How it Ends” and “You Broke my Heart,” and so it stands out as the weakest heartbreak song of the three. At first, I really didn’t enjoy the pairing of Earle and Miranda Lambert, but that’s growing on me, mainly because it’s just such a damn good song. My initial problem was that Lambert is meant to be singing harmony, but sometimes she drowns out Steve. I’m starting to like it better because in doing so, she makes it easier to understand some of the lyrics. ON the front half, “The Firebreak Line” is quite a fun song, but it doesn’t necessarily add much. “News From Colorado,” the only subdued song on the front half, is also a little vague and underdeveloped lyrically. But all these are really minor, nitpicking criticisms, and overall, this record is pretty great.

So, in conclusion, this is a pretty fascinating album. First, you have the angry front half, and then you have the subdued, heartbroken back half, and together they tell a very good story. Steve Earle is a fine songwriter, and the natural grit in his voice just accidentally adds a lot to this album and the stories told. Every collaborator also brought something to the record. I mentioned there were some weaker songs, or perhaps even filler, but at the same time, it’s one of the few albums I’ve played in 2017 without a single bad track. Very nice, solid album. Give it a listen.

P.S. I’m not reviewing the deluxe version, but that also has four pretty awesome covers of songs previously written by Waylon, Willie, and Billy Joe shaver.

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