Tag Archives: Eric Church

Album Review: Ray Wylie Hubbard–Tell the Devil I’m Gettin’ There as Fast as I Can

Rating: 5/10

I’ve given this album a ton of listens, and truth be told, it gets worse almost each time. It’s a difficult rating to assign because I think there are some truly excellent songs here; the problem is that they’re mixed in with some incredibly boring material that balances out the record to just be really average. It’s not necessarily a fault of the writing or of the instrumentation, it’s the sameness permeating this album that ultimately brings it down after further listens.

But let’s talk about the killer songs first because they’re sprinkled in here, reminding us what a songwriting genius Ray Wylie Hubbard really is. This album deals a lot, as its title would suggest, with God and the devil and matters of repentance and redemption. We get a truly epic tale in “Lucifer and the Fallen Angels,” as they hitchhike with Ray Wylie to Mobile, Alabama, and Lucifer recounts the story of getting banished from heaven and continuously advises Hubbard to abandon his plan of going to Nashville, saying, “it’s better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” He suggests that Ray Wylie go “someplace like Texas,” where they still appreciate good music. On the other side of the spectrum, Hubbard details the story of the creation and the fall in Genesis in what can only be described as a redneck retelling in the opener, “God Looked Around.” His storytelling skills are also on fine display in “House of the White Rose Bouquet,” a haunting tale about a “woman of desire” named Olivia whom the narrator once loved. She now haunts the brothel where they worked, but it’s now been turned into a theater, or as Ray Wylie calls it, “a beacon of decency.”

We have two collaborations featured on this record, and the title track is definitely going to be the one getting more attention because it features Lucinda Williams and Eric Church, but it’s the Patty Griffin harmonies on the closer, “IN Times of Cold,” that make this song the better collaboration by far. This song ends the album appropriately, reflecting on heaven but asserting that “I’ll likely take my place in hell.”

As for the title track, it’s a good narrative, and the details and melodic touches here are nice, especially considering the overwhelming sameness in much of the album which I am about to address, but Lucinda Williams’ part here just ruins this. The only word I can think to properly describe her contribution is careless; she doesn’t sing in time with Ray and Eric Church, her voice sticks out like a sore thumb, and she doesn’t sound at all engaged with the lyrics of the song. Eric Church is much more respectful of the song and the words, but it’s like Lucinda just wanted to be heard.

Why am I spending so much time harping on this particular song? Because it should have been one of the standouts. This album is filled with songs having very little instrumentation and almost no choruses. The only songs where we are not hit with the same repeated verse, over and over, until we’re virtually hypnotized by this repetition of rhythm and lack of interesting melody, are the collaborations. It’s like a breath of fresh air to hear the title track come on and get a little more variety, and then Lucinda Williams just comes along and ruins the whole thing for me.

And songwriters, what is this tendency to forsake your melodies? It doesn’t matter that the lyrics are brilliant if they’re translated into a boring, lifeless piece of music. This is what ultimately takes this album from a 7.5 straight down to a 5. The three songs I mentioned above? Yes, they’re all killer lyrically, and I stand by that, but all of them are incredibly repetitive. The lyrics hold up well enough on these songs that it doesn’t matter, but almost the whole rest of the record is so plain and forgettable that even these songs are tarnished in context. On some of the other tracks, it’s not as if the lyrics are bad. It’s just that a song is more than lyrics, and we rely on melodies to make these words come alive. Much of it just sounds so unfinished, like we’re listening to the first drafts of these songs before they were given a proper chance to find the right instrumentation and production and truly come to life. I especially get that impression listening to “Open G,” like Ray Wylie Hubbard was just messing around with his guitar and never actually intended that song to be on the final version of the record. It’s a completely pointless track, so that at least would be a legitimate explanation for its existence here.

Overall, I don’t hate this record. In fact, I think there are some truly brilliant moments here, particularly in “Lucifer and the Fallen Angels” and “House of the White Rose Bouquet.” But it’s an album whose problems emerge over time, and there’s not much longevity at all. At first, you hear some killer tracks, some decent ones, and yeah, maybe a couple boring ones to round it out. Not a perfect album, but a decent one. And then, through repeated listens, the overwhelming sameness in this record starts to wear it down. It’s a lack of care for the instrumentation and especially for the melody that if given more attention could have really changed this whole album. All in all, it just seems really uninspired, and Ray Wylie Hubbard is certainly capable of much better.

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Album Review: Rhiannon Giddens–Freedom Highway

Rating: 8.5/10

It’s taken me quite a few listens to put my feelings about this album into words. Even now, it’s one of the more difficult albums I’ve ever discussed, but it’s definitely worthy of discussion. For those unfamiliar with Rhiannon Giddens, she’s the wonderful voice on Eric Church’s “Kill a Word,” a song that speaks out against all the evil in the world, from racism to hate to loneliness. Giddens has also released an album of covers, but this is her first album of original material and my first exposure to her outside the Church song. The album she delivers is as complex in sound as it is in theme, taking us on a journey from the days of slavery to the Civil Rights movement to the racism and police violence of today. None of these are easy issues to address, but Giddens has brought us a record that can open our eyes and teach us much about our history, all in a way that is more observation than judgment, more storytelling than sermon, and at once grieved by the past but hopeful for the future.

The album opens with the slow-burning “At the Purchaser’s Option,” and right away, we are told the story of a slave whose owner has raped her; now she has a baby boy, and she can’t help but love him even though she knows someday he will be sold. It’s a great opener and sets the tone of the album well. Next is a cover of “The Angels Laid Him Away.” The acoustic instrumentation really allows Rhiannon’s voice to shine, and her ability to convey emotion is something that will be an ongoing highlight of the record. This is the first of several smart covers chosen for the album. “Julie” is a standout of the record; it’s another acoustic-driven track, this one another, more complicated slave narrative. Both Julie and her mistress sing here; it appears that they had a good relationship and may have even been in love, but Julie has found out the mistress has sold her children and leaves when the Union soldiers come. I applaud Rhiannon Giddens for recording a song as complex as this one.

Giddens does an excellent job with the cover of “Birmingham Sunday,” a song about the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church murder by the KKK. The perspective shifts to today’s issues with the funky “Better Get it Right the first Time.” This one is upbeat and somehow lighter on the surface in the midst of a dark album, but the lyrics are some of the most thought-provoking on the whole record. Giddens repeats the line, “Young man was a good man,” in between recounting the details of his life; he did his best to live right but went to one house party and ended up being shot by police. Rhiannon’s nephew, Justin Harrington, adds a rap to the song that elevates it, telling the story from the young man’s perspective. The conclusion is that for black Americans, there aren’t second chances, so “You better get it right the first time.” This is another highlight of the record. “We Could Fly” is another standout, speaking of the hope that comes after death and flying away from what the song calls “the bonds of earth.” It’s the opposite of “Better get it Right the first Time,” dark on the surface but one of the more uplifting tracks on a somber record.

Speaking of light moments, next is the fun, lighthearted “Hey BéBé.” I wouldn’t necessarily say it adds to the album, but it’s definitely catchy and serves as a break from the intensity. The horns in this are just cool. At the same time, as a song itself, it doesn’t stand out; it says more in the context of the album. “Come Love Come” is another slave narrative, this time about a slave couple waiting to be reunited. The woman waits for her lover in Tennessee. This is a solid song, but it doesn’t have the same impact as the other slave stories; I don’t know if it’s because this is the third one or if this one just doesn’t resonate as much as the others. The soulful “The Love we Almost Had” is another light moment about a love that could have been. This one works better than “Hey BéBé” as a diversion from the dark themes of the record because it is more understated, whereas “Hey BéBé” almost sticks out like a sore thumb. “Baby Boy” is my least favorite track; it’s another acoustic song about Mary watching over Jesus, or possibly also any mother watching over her son. It’s not a bad song, but it doesn’t add anything to the record. The instrumental “Following the North Star” follows, and I have to say, I think it would have been a nice prelude to “Julie,” but it works well here before the closer and title track, a cover of “Freedom Highway.” The album ends in more of a place of hope than it began, asserting that the quest for freedom is daily and ongoing.

This is a great piece of history and commentary, using storytelling to bring us a message that can’t be delivered by activists or preachers, but only through art. It’s an album that can teach us all something if we let it, and that’s one of the most compelling things about music. I will say that it is held back for me a little because it won’t hold up as well as other albums, especially the latter half. even the excellent front half won’t have the staying power of some other records because it’s not something you will probably pull out months later for some nice, relaxing music. But that’s not what this album was meant to do. It was meant to be respected more than enjoyed and to teach and preserve pieces of history in an effort to keep the same mistakes from occurring in the future. IN that regard, this record excels, and for that, Rhiannon Giddens should be praised.

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Country Music vs. Good Music: Does Genre Matter?

There has been a lot of talk lately about genre lines and how important they really are. Does it matter that an album sounds country if the lyrics are bland? Is hearing songs rife with fiddle and steel on the radio really an improvement in itself, or have we gone so far that country-sounding music is praised over good music in general? Do we overlook artists like David Nail and Eric Church, both of whom have put out solid country albums in the past year, while propping up more traditional artists like Mo Pitney and William Michael Morgan just because they sound a certain way? All of this boils down to one question: Does genre really matter at all?

Well, that is a difficult question to answer, and there are differing viewpoints on all sides. This is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write because of the sheer number of people who may disagree, and I could ignore it, but I feel inclined to address it, and to be honest with myself and all of you. Honesty is absent everywhere in music right now, and that is one of the driving factors behind Country Exclusive’s existence, so I am going to do my best to provide it.

The simple answer is no, genre doesn’t matter. Good music is good music regardless of who is singing or what genre it is labeled. This is why I gave Carrie Underwood’s Storyteller two different grades–one as a country album, and one as simply an album. It makes a pretty good pop album. Kelsea Ballerini made a decent pop album too and then sent the singles to country radio–and not the best singles either, I might add, but that’s a different story. I wrote that Courtney Marie Andrews defied genre lines in Honest Life, and while not being the most country album, it is the best album I have reviewed to date. Good music can and does come out of every genre, and that is what we should be looking for the most.

To add to that, I want to say that country can be good without having fiddle and steel. I have written in several Red dirt album reviews a sentiment like, “This isn’t the album to buy if you want fiddle and steel,” followed by praise of the album. Red Dirt has a raw honesty that often surpasses genre, and this is evident in the massive sonic difference between Jason Eady and Reckless Kelly, both of whom have produced an inordinate amount of great music during their respective careers. There’s good pop country too, like the aforementioned Carrie Underwood and David Nail. Eric Church produced one of the better albums of 2015, both musically and lyrically, and you won’t find fiddle or steel anywhere on it. I have written a great deal about Maddie & Tae, advising strict traditionalists to give them a chance because they were bringing country back to radio, even if it was pop country. I praised Aubrib Sellers and her debut album which she labeled “garage country.” I’m far from a country purist, ready to criticize something immediately because it isn’t what country “should” sound like.

However, this idea of good music first has been taken too far. William Michael Morgan got a #1 at radio with “I Met a Girl,” which, while indeed lyrically weak, actually sounded country. It’s a step in the right direction as much as the songwriting on Eric Church’s album or the CMA wins of Chris stapleton. Why? Because something actually resembling country can be heard on country radio for the first time in years. But if genre doesn’t matter, why are we even celebrating? Surely Morgan’s “I Met a Girl” is just more shitty music with fiddle and steel.

It’s because truthfully, genre can’t be ignored completely. If you went to a bookstore and found the books arranged in categories of “good” and “bad,” this wouldn’t help you find a book at all. It’s because these terms are subjective. If you wanted to read crime fiction, you would go to the section marked crime fiction, and from there, you could decide which books you wanted to read. If you found romance in the crime fiction section, you would say the book has been put in the wrong place. Of course, there are books that have elements of both and can therefore be classified as both. Now, let’s apply this to music. Crime fiction might be country, romance might be pop, and the two might blend to make pop country. A book containing many different elements might be labeled just “fiction” or “literature”–in music, this could be Americana, with its blending of many styles. There are probably good books in all the different genres, but since you came looking for crime fiction, you aren’t going to be satisfied with a good romance novel. In the same way, if you want to hear traditional country, you won’t find it in the pop country of Carrie Underwood, the country rock of Eric Church, or the Americana of Jason Isbell.

Therefore, when an artist like Morgan comes along, who actually sounds traditional, it’s right to be excited that he’s getting airplay. It’s right to fight to hear more country on country radio–in fact, many of us ran to underground country simply because of the lack of country on country radio. And it’s right to want to see mainstream Nashville and country radio embrace people like Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price. We can run to Americana and give up on the mainstream altogether, but no matter how you look at it, Americana isn’t country. Some of it is excellent, but it still isn’t country. It isn’t the music we fell in love with, the music we miss. We should praise music of substance regardless of how it sounds, but the lack of country on country radio is just an important a problem as the lack of substance in the music.

I daresay the majority, if not all of us, fell in love with country music, at least in part, by listening to country radio. Maybe you grew up with the legends like Haggard and Nelson. Maybe you remember Keith Whitley and Randy Travis, or maybe you miss the sounds of Alan Jackson, George Strait, and Vince Gill. Maybe you’re like me, and the first country you ever heard was the Dixie Chicks. Regardless, you heard all of them because they were played on country radio and available to the masses, just like their pop country counterparts. Pop country has always been around, but never has it replaced and eradicated the traditional as it has in recent years. Wherever your nostalgia comes from, you fell out of love with country radio after it lost the sound and substance you were drawn to. Today, even though the substance is slowly returning, there is still a noticeable lack of the sound. People growing up with country radio today might associate country with Luke Bryan or Thomas Rhett, both of whom lack the sound and the substance. Or maybe they’ll associate country with Carrie Underwood and Eric Church–they will recognize the substance but lose the sound. But until Morgan and Pardi, there hasn’t been a traditional sound being carried to the masses in years. Pop country isn’t a bad thing, but the complete elimination of the traditional is a terrible thing, and a dangerous thing for country as we know it. Therefore, when an artist like Morgan breaks through and gets a #1 single, we should all be celebrating. There is still much work to be done in Nashville, both in sound and substance, but Morgan, and others like him, are bringing hope for everyone who thought traditional country was lost. He’s not pop country, he’s not country rock, he’s not Americana. He’s just country. And I miss country. I fell in love with country. Country is my passion as a fan and my focus as a reviewer. It’s what I’ll always love the most, even though I praise and listen to plenty of good music from other genres, and it seemed, not long ago, that the music I loved would be lost forever in the mainstream. I am nothing but glad that Morgan and Pardi have broken through, and that young people out there listening to country radio once again have the opportunity to fall in love with real country the way I did. As I said, there is still a lot of work to be done, but let’s all recognize this for what it is, a positive step, and be glad for how far we’ve come.

Single Review: Miranda Lambert’s “Vice”

Rating: 8/10

Well, it has been a long time, and it is good to be back. I think it appropriate that my first review in several months should be of possibly my most personally anticipated single of 2016. It is no secret to anyone who reads this how I feel about Miranda Lambert, and besides this, her next album has been especially anticipated by many following her divorce from Blake Shelton and his subsequent, obnoxiously public relationship with Gwen Stefani. None of this matters at all and should mostly be left to gossip sites, but it must be pointed out here because it will most likely have a direct effect on Lambert’s musical direction. With that in mind, we have the lead single from what will be Miranda’s sixth album, “Vice.”

“Vice” opens with a needle on vinyl and then just Miranda singing. The first thing I notice is how vulnerable she sounds. She sings about a woman who goes through different vices, including drinking and waking up in places she doesn’t know how she came to. She knows she keeps making mistakes, but she can’t seem to help it. There is an honesty in this song that country music lost years ago, and the fact it’s coming on a lead single is unbelievable. “Standing at the sink looking in the mirror, I don’t know where I am or how I got here. The only thing that I know how to find is another vice.” I can’t think of the last time I heard such raw honesty in a lead single. She wasn’t looking for radio play when she co-wrote this. As for the production, it’s not something we’ve yet heard from Miranda Lambert; it’s neither the strong country of Revolution nor the pop rock sound dominating Platinum. It’s something in between, like the raw country rock sound of Eric Church’s Mr. Misunderstood or parts of Lindi Ortega’s Faded Gloryville. It works on this song, and it is definitely a better direction than Platinum, although I still prefer the sound of Revolution. Having said that, I am interested to hear the upcoming album. Unlike the general overproduction on Platinum, “Vice” maintains something raw and real. This is a good different direction for Miranda Lambert. If “Vice” is any indication, the album could be a truly honest one and a standout in the mainstream this year.

The 51st Annual ACM Award Nominees, With Commentary

This morning, (2/1), the nominees for the 2016 Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards were revealed on CBS the Morning and ETOnline.com. The ACM Awards will take place on April 3rd at the MGM Grand Ballroom in Las Vegas and air on CBS. For the first time in several years, Blake Shelton will not be one of the hosts–this year it will be Blake’s former co-host, Luke Bryan, along with Dierks Bentley. This seems an unlikely pair to say the least, but we’ll see on April 3rd. Here are the nominees, along with predictions, preferences, and some personal commentary.

Video of the Year

“Biscuits”–Kacey Musgraves, directed by Mark Klausfeld, produced by Nicole Acacio
“Burning House”–Cam, directed by Trey Fanjoy, produced by Trent Hardville
“Girl Crush”–Little Big Town, directed by Karla Welch and Matthew Welch, produced by Amanda Prunesti
“Mr. Misunderstood”–Eric Church, directed by Reid Long and John Peets, produced by Megan Smith
“Riser”–Dierks Bentley, directed by Wes Edwards, produced by Jennifer Rothlein
Prediction: “Burning House” or “Riser”
Preference: none

New Male Vocalist of the Year

Good to see the ACM’s breaking down this category again, as for the past several years it has been simply “New Artist.”

Brett Eldredge [no]
Chris Janson [no]
Thomas Rhett [really?]
Chase Rice [hell no]
Chris Stapleton [thank God]
Prediction: Chris Stapleton
Preference: Chris Stapleton…I would prefer Chris Stapleton anyway, but out of these, do I really have a choice?
Note: When is Thomas Rhett going to stop getting nominated for New Artist awards?

New Female Vocalist of the Year

Kelsea Ballerini [no]
Cam [yes!]
Mickey Guyton [good]
RaeLynn [oh God no]
Prediction: Cam or Kelsea Ballerini
Preference: Cam
Note: Only four artists here…what happened to including more women? This is the only category to be missing an artist….and if we can nominate Thomas Rhett, surely we can nominate Ashley Monroe or Jana Kramer. Many more if they knew how to think outside the box…Jamie Lin Wilson anyone? Having said that, I’m impressed with the inclusion of Mickey Guyton, it is well deserved.

New Vocal Duo or Group of the Year

A Thousand Horses [ok]
Brothers Osborne [good]
Maddie & Tae [yes]
Old Dominion [please]
Parmalee [no]
Prediction: Maddie & Tae
Preference: Maddie & Tae
Note: I am sorry that Maddie & Tae and Brothers Osborne must be in the same category with the likes of Old Dominion. Maddie & Tae really deserve this award and should win it…they deserve to be the Duo of the Year, but this would involve de-throning Florida Georgia Line.

Vocal Event of the Year

“Hang Over Tonight”–Gary Allan featuring Chris Stapleton, produced by
Gary Allan and Greg Droman, MCA Nashville
“Home Alone Tonight”–Luke Bryan featuring Karen Fairchild, produced by Jeff Stevens and Jody Stephens, Capitol Nashville
“Raise ’em Up”–Keith Urban featuring Eric Church, produced by Nathan Chapman and Keith Urban, Hit Red Records/Capitol Nashville
“Smokin’ and Drinkin'”–Miranda Lambert featuring Little Big Town, produced by Frank Liddell, Chuck Anilay, and Glenn Worf, RCA Nashville
“Wild Child”–Kenny Chesney with Grace Potter, produced by Buddy Cannon and Kenny Chesney, Blue Chair Records/Columbia Nashville
Prediction: “Raise ’em Up”
Preference: “Wild Child” out of these, but there are better nominees by far.
Note: Why is “Hang Over Tonight” being nominated for anything? This was not successful commercially or critically, has stalled Gary Allan’s entire career, and cost him millions of fans…but let’s nominate it for an ACM, makes perfect sense. “Home Alone Tonight” is trash, “Smokin’ and Drinkin'” is just there, and the others are decent. Terrible list altogether. The CMA nominated Willie and Merle’s collaboration album at least.

Single Record of the Year

Interestingly, or stupidly, the Song of the Year and Songwriter of the Year nominees are not out yet and should be announced “in the coming weeks”…Song of the Year has traditionally been about critical acclaim, and Single Record was for commercial success, but lately they have become somewhat interchangeable.

“Burning House”–Cam, produced by Jeff Bhasker, Tyler Johnson, and Cameron Ochs, Arista Nashville/RCA Records/Kravenworks [excellent]
“Buy me a Boat”–Chris Janson, produced by Brent Anderson, Chris DuBois, and Chris Janson, Warner Music Nashville [no]
“Die a Happy Man”–Thomas Rhett, produced by Dan Huff and Jesse Frasur, The Vallory Music Co. [to be expected, but hell no]
“Girl Crush”–Little Big Town, produced by Jay Joyce, Capitol Records Nashville [yes]
“I’m Comin’ Over”–Chris Young, produced by Corey Crowder and Chris Young, RCA Nashville [decent]
Prediction: No idea…this could go to Cam, Thomas Rhett, or Little Big Town, if we’re talking commercial success. All three would deserve it based on this.
Preference: “Burning House” or “Girl Crush”
Note: The only thing I’m certain of here is that Chris Young has absolutely no chance.

Album of the Year

I’m Comin’ Over–Chris Young, produced by Corey Crowder and Chris Young, RCA Records [lol]
Montevallo–Sam Hunt, produced by Zach Crowell and Shane McAnally, MCA Nashville [never]
Mr. Misunderstood–Eric Church, produced by Jay Joyce, EMI Records Nashville [yes]
Tangled up–Thomas Rhett, produced by Dan Huff, Jesse Frasur, and Chris Destafano, The Vallory Music Co. [absolutely horrifying]
Traveller–Chris Stapleton, produced by Dave Cobb and Chris Stapleton, Mercury Records [yes]
Prediction: Traveller
Preference: Traveller
Note: Glad to see Eric Church with a nomination here, and disappointed in the lack of women. Thomas Rhett’s Tangled Up is even worse than Montevallo which is saying something…some good nominees, but a bad category overall. At least Stapleton is now a front runner, after his upsets at the CMA’s. But Kacey Musgraves should definitely have a nomination here. The fact that Chris Young’s boring effort is here is completely laughable.

Vocal Duo of the Year

Brothers Osborne [good]
Dan + Shay [no]
Maddie & Tae [yes]
Joey + Rory [good]
Florida Georgia Line[no]
Prediction: Maddie & Tae…going out on a limb.
Preference: Maddie & Tae
Note: I don’t think Florida Georgia Line will do it again…they’ve slipped in popularity. Also, never underestimate the power of the sympathy vote for Joey + Rory, cancer is a powerful thing. I’m glad to see Joey + Rory with a nomination too, but they shouldn’t get the win…that right belongs to Maddie & Tae, and enough splitting of the votes may happen here that we will see them take it.

Vocal Group of the Year

Wow, what an awful category.

Eli Young Band [no]
Little Big Town [yes]
Old Dominion [for the love of God]
Rascal Flatts [no]
Zac Brown Band [not after this year….”Beautiful Drug” is not worth any recognition, even if the group is]
Prediction: Little Big Town…they’ve become the Miranda Lambert of the Vocal Group category.
Preference: Little Big Town
Note: Can we give it to Turnpike Troubadours?

Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean [no]
Dierks Bentley [good]
Eric Church [yes]
Brett Eldredge [lol]
Chris Stapleton [yes]
Prediction: Eric Church or Chris Stapleton
Preference: Chris Stapleton, but I’d be happy with Eric.
Note: No Blake Shelton…interestingly, Blake Shelton was shut out entirely from this extravaganza.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Kelsea Ballerini [no]
Jana Kramer [good]
Miranda Lambert [duh]
Kacey Musgraves [good]
Carrie Underwood [good]
Prediction: Miranda Lambert–like with the CMA’s, I’m not an idiot.
Preference: Carrie Underwood
Note: Glad to see Jana Kramer with a nomination…if we could have replaced Kelsea with Ashley Monroe, this would have been a pretty fair list.

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean [no]
Garth Brooks [good]
Luke Bryan [duh but no]
Eric Church [good]
Miranda Lambert [good]
Prediction: Luke Bryan, with an outside chance of Garth Brooks
Preference: Garth Brooks