Tag Archives: Luke Bryan

Year-End Lists Should be About Quality, Not Quotas

Before the release of my list of the best albums of 2017 tomorrow, I’d like to address an issue that’s been bothering me increasingly over the past week, as more and more people release their year-end lists of great country/Americana/bluegrass songs and albums. There seem to be two prevailing themes–the lists, in varying degrees of discrepancy, feature more men than women, and people are getting upset about this, citing it as a consistent, systematic discrimination similar to that faced by women on country radio and all across the industry.

First of all, undoubtedly there is an inherent bias and discrimination against women in the music industry, maybe especially in the country industry, and I’ve spilled much ink discussing this. Women are not given a chance to succeed on the radio despite sales numbers–see Miranda Lambert and “Tin Man,”–while men seem to constantly rocket up the charts no matter how much (Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road”) or how little “Luke Bryan’s “Light it Up”) it might actually be selling and resonating with the general public. Women are consistently speaking of quotas held by labels and radio programmers, of only being allowed so many slots in the mainstream just because of their gender. All of this is factual, and disheartening, , and something Country Exclusive will do its small part to fight and rail against for the foreseeable future.

But just as the quota for women shouldn’t exist on country radio, it shouldn’t exist on these year-end lists either. As a woman, I strive for equal opportunity with men, and I can’t speak for these artists, but what I can say about Country Exclusive is that we will offer an equal opportunity for both genders to be heard, reviewed, and considered for year-end lists. Although I can’t speak for anyone else with certainty, I believe this rings true for others in my position as well. That said, I will not guarantee equal results here–I will not feature a year-end list that contains exactly half men and half women unless that is a true reflection of my opinion of the quality of the music. I will not add or take away women from a list just to fill a quota or to avoid offending anyone. And if I were an artist, I’d want to be recognized on a list such as this because the writer(s) respected the quality of my work, not because they were playing an arbitrary numbers game. Just as it is wrong to exclude based on gender, it’s wrong to include only on that basis, for this in turn diminishes the quality of one’s output and asserts that specific groups, in this case women, need special treatment and mandated quotas in order to make these lists. This is not equality. This is not progress. This is affirmative action, and affirmative action is not, or should not be, the goal. A tweet I read sums this up perfectly by saying that if you pay attention to gender when listening to music, you’re doing it wrong.

Country Exclusive did not operate regularly in 2016, but two albums received a 10/10 rating that year and could be considered tied for Album of the Year. Those were Dori Freeman’s self-titled debut and Courtney Marie Andrews’ Honest Life. In 2015, our Album of the Year was given to the self-titled record by the Turnpike Troubadours, and in 2017, it will go to a man. Of the eight albums that have received perfect grades from me over the past two and a half years, five were by women–I heard it said that if these lists weren’t biased, surely on one of them, there would be more women than men, so although this is not a year-end list, there is a small example of women outnumbering men here on this platform. That said, in 2017, twenty-eight of the seventy-eight albums we’ve reviewed here have been either by solo women performers or by groups fronted by women–those are numbers reflecting the material which has been available to us, this is not half, nor will the albums list reflect that. I can’t speak for everyone on this, of course, but much of this is a numbers game–not a game of filling quotas, but simply of the numbers being unbalanced when it comes to albums released in 2017.

Lastly, above all, this should be about the quality of one’s work. If the twenty best albums of the year were made by men, a writer should reflect that, and readers should respect that. If they were made by women, once again, a writer should reflect that, and readers should respect it. Writers should take all artists’ music into equal consideration, but if this is happening, they shouldn’t be singled out for including more men than women, certainly not in a year where more albums have been released by men. Equal opportunity does not necessarily mean equal results, nor should we wish it to because this is a fundamental disrespect of the quality of music made by both men and women. Imagine being left off the list as a man because the list required more women that perhaps made lesser projects. Imagine being included on the list simply because you were a woman, rather than because that person actually believed in you and your craft and sought to highlight your music among all your peers, not just those from your gender. Neither scenario correctly reflects the true quality of the music at hand, and ultimately, that’s the problem with the systematic discrimination in the industry. It’s all about quotas, not quality. So set an example by not allowing it to be that way in independent music and on these lists, so that artists are truly recognized for putting out the best music, and so that gender is a completely irrelevant factor. It’s not about having “enough” women on these lists, it’s about making sure that the best music, regardless of anything else, is heard and rewarded.

Album Review: Luke Bryan–What Makes You Country

Rating: 4.5/10

Okay, so honestly, this is the kind of album that really doesn’t give me much passion to write. It’s not great, it’s not terrible, it just exists. The vast majority of it is just kind of forgettable. That’s a pretty good summary of this, and I could take the quality songs from this and easily fit them into Memorable Songs.

But the fact that I can pull songs from this into that feature is improvement in and of itself. I feel I at least owe Luke a proper review because he’s showing some maturity and making at least marginally better music. His last album was mostly horrendous, and I’ve hated a good majority of his singles for the past five years. So when you go from spectacularly awful to okay, and even sprinkle in some quality, it should be commended. I’ve been one of Luke Bryan’s biggest critics–anyone who knows me at all will know this–and so I can’t ignore it when the guy’s making better music.

So let’s talk about the quality because you actually do get a few really solid tracks here. “Drinking Again” reminds you that one, Luke can actually use his charisma for good, as opposed to singing hookup songs in trucks, and two, that not all drinking songs are bad. This one’s fun and catchy and would make a good single. I daresay his fans would have enjoyed it more than the insufferable mess that is “Light it Up,” and hopefully, he will release this. “Most People Are Good” is just simply a nice song, and when the world’s going to hell all around us, we need stuff like this to remind us it’s not as bad as the media would have us believe. This is not going to be anyone’s Song of the Year or anything, but it’s a case of less is more, and it’s just nice to hear a song like this. Also, the production, as is actually the case for most of this record, is much closer to pop country than much of Bryan’s previous output, and although modern, this actually sounds like it should be allowed to be in the genre. “Land of a Million Songs” displays some of that too, as we have some prominent piano featured here, and the song itself is another highlight, an extremely well-written tune about doing anything to make it in the music business and constantly looking for things to say and adding verses to your songs. I can’t believe we’re getting a song like this from Luke; actually, it reminds me of a hidden gem we might have seen on one of Blake Shelton’s more recent albums–you know, before he released this current piece of shit. Side note here, isn’t it sad that Luke Bryan has actually produced a better album than Shelton this year?…but I digress.

Then we’ve got some decent songs–not anything necessarily to write home about, but definitely some more proof that Bryan strove for more maturity with this project. “Pick it Up” actually portrays a grown man–I didn’t know the same person who sang “Light it Up” was capable of this–hoping his son will learn from him and adopt some of his cool habits and good values. It’s kind of cheesy, but I’m sure it’s personal to Luke, and that’s more than I can say about every sex anthem by a river in a truck he’s ever produced. The title track isn’t bad either; it’s pretty catchy, and the overall idea is nice, asserting that anyone can be country, and it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what background you have. Good idea, but played out badly, as he then asserts he’s country because of pretty much all the clichés he normally uses in all his other songs. Still, I see what it was going for, and I’ll give him some credit. Same goes for “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset,”–it’s the same clichés as well, but at least there’s a story and a bit of depth to this.

There’s nothing that makes me cringe quite like any of Luke’s previous work, except the God-awful “Light it UP.” Even his loyal fans aren’t liking this too much, as they know it’s creepy and lame. His neurotic obsession with his cell phone would be enough to make me break it off if I were the girlfriend, but hey, that’s just me. Also, like him or not, Luke does have charisma, allowing him to pull off a lot of his previous material, and here, he just sounds completely checked out. The whole thing would really just be lifeless and boring but for the embarrassing lyrics. We don’t have anything else that horrible, but we do get some ill-advised R&B sex jam attempt in “Hungover in a Hotel Room” that just shouldn’t exist. It is just not sexy in the least bit and therefore does not accomplish its purpose at all. And there’s “She’s a Hot One,” which honestly sounds like a leftover from one of Bryan’s bro country albums that didn’t make the cut–and understandably, because it’s like a wannabe version of all those songs. I can’t be too disgusted by this one because it’s just…lame.

As for the rest, there’s literally nothing to say. It just runs together. The good thing here is that none of this is atrocious, and Luke Bryan has certainly proven he’s capable of atrocious. The bad thing is that although it’s a major improvement for Luke, it’s still not a good album. It’s just under exactly half good, and that’s simply because it drags along to fifteen tracks. “Win Life,” there at the end, isn’t a bad song, but by this point, you’re just tired of listening. They could have trimmed this down a little and risen this rating to a 5, even a 6. As it is, the ultimate flaw is it’s uninteresting. But that’s also a noticeable sign of growth because while the quality does stand out, the lesser material mostly just fades into the background. Coming from someone as polarizing as Luke Bryan, that’s improvement, and maturity, and he’s shown both on this album. I hope we get more interesting selections next time, but he’s definitely going in the right direction, even if he’s not quite there yet with this record.

Buy the Album

The Good

The Terrible

Travis Tritt Endorses Chris Stapleton and “Honest to God Country Music” in Live Show

First, let me say that you need to make it a point to see Travis Tritt live if you get the opportunity. I got the chance Friday (7/14), and it’s an incredible experience. You’ll get country, Southern rock, and even some blues, and you’ll leave amazed at the vocal ability and range of styles covered by Tritt, not to mention impressed by his own guitar picking and the talent of his whole band and drawn in by his infectious attitude onstage.

AT some point during many country shows lately, you’ll usually get some reference to the crappy state of modern mainstream music–Jason Eady made mention of this to considerable approval–and/or nods to older artists and perhaps covers of these artists’ songs–both Jason Eady and Dwight Yoakam covered Merle Haggard at recent events I attended. In these respects, Travis Tritt was no different; he asked us all if we were fans of “honest to God country music” and then quickly stipulated that he didn’t mean “a lot of what you hear today.” He went on to cite artists like Waylon Jennings, George Jones, and Loretta Lynn before introducing his song “Outlaws Like Us,” previously recorded with Hank Jr. and Waylon. He apparently doesn’t rate Luke Bryan too high on the list because after a couple minutes of downright impressive guitar picking, he finally broke into the song with a cheerful, “Eat your heart out, Luke Bryan!” to ridiculous applause.

But there is one new artist that Travis Tritt not only respects but actually covered later in the show. After remarking on the newer artists in country music and saying that it makes him feel good when they say he influenced them, he said, in order to honor that, he’d do a song from his favorite new country artist. That’s not something you see every day; it’s one thing for him to cover one of his own influences, but to pay respect to a younger, newer artist by covering their song at your show is the ultimate stamp of approval. And with that, he announced “a little Chris Stapleton song,” “Nobody to Blame.”

It’s not just that it’s Chris Stapleton he picked, although that’s certainly noteworthy in itself given Stapleton’s lack of radio support and traditional leanings. It’s that he’s showing leadership by choosing to cover a new artist’s song at all, especially one that doesn’t fit the mainstream mold. Like I say, it’s no small thing for an established artist to cover a newer one, even given the incredible streak Stapleton’s been on. And when he’s out there saying stuff like not all country that’s around today is real, and “eat your heart out, Luke Bryan,” he’s not just approving of Chris Stapleton, he’s setting Stapleton apart and saying that here’s an artist in 2017 who’s doing it right. That in turn sets Tritt apart from the “old farts and jackasses” who want country to stay in a box and never move forward. We all know Tritt has been vocal in the past about things like Beyoncé being booked on the CMA’s, but this support of an artist like Stapleton proves he’s not just here to complain. It’s a great way of doing his part to show leadership in the genre. Cool stuff, glad I got to witness it!

Right Then, About This Whiskey Riff Business

Yes, I know I’m late to the party; I was out of town when the uproar broke out. And yes, I know maybe I shouldn’t give Whiskey Riff the satisfaction of even acknowledging this idiocy, as plenty of other outlets have already done it. If you don’t know by now, Whiskey Riff posted an article Friday asserting that the reason we all hate mainstream country music is because we were all losers in high school. Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt, Luke Bryan–well, they’re the good-looking jocks who get the popularity and the girls, and we’re all just jealous because we didn’t live this lifestyle in high school and can’t relate to or understand it. Essentially, we’re all just the geeks and misfits, and now we’re holding some sort of grudge against the jocks.

I won’t waste time doing what other blogs have already done fantastically; others have already defended the reasons we criticize mainstream country music. I won’t tell you my back story in an effort to explain my situation in high school, and I won’t lie and say I was extremely popular either. I won’t tell you about the mainstream artists I do enjoy–you can find that for yourself in the reviews. I will say the most offensive part of this for me was the part where we’re all jealous of FGl, Luke, and Sam because they’re good-looking and get all the girls. Ok, so even if we go with this assumption, and even if that twisted bit of logic explains the problem men have with these artists and their music, where does that leave women? What about all the women who are offended by this music? Or have all the listeners of bro country and Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” become so desensitized to the thoughts and feelings of females that they can’t imagine them doing anything but shaking their asses on tailgates?

Now, I can’t truthfully say I hate all this music, and there are good or decent songs in all of these artists’ catalogues. I’m not close-minded enough to say everything they release is pure shit, and I will be the first to praise good material from them. As far as Sam hunt, some of his music would be fine in pop, it’s just not country. But can you not understand how offensive these songs are to women? We are treated like objects in these songs, as Maddie & Tae pointed out in “Girl in a Country Song.” There’s a reason that song was a hit–women everywhere related to it. It’s not a compliment to tell me to “slide that sugar shaker over here’ or to say I have a “body like a back road.” I said I wasn’t going to state my back story, but I will say that I have been “complimented” in this way, and when that’s all you hear, all it makes you feel is cheap. Women want to be told we’re beautiful, not just sexy, and we want to be appreciated for our minds, not just our bodies. And we have dreams beyond driving around in some guy’s truck on Friday night with our bare feet on the dashboard.

And women, you’re selling yourself short if some of this doesn’t offend you. These songs objectify us and make us things to be possessed; indeed, the article even says the artists “get’ the girls. It’s why women have disappeared so drastically from the airwaves in such a short time. Who wants to listen to a song by a female? How can a woman even have an intelligent thought when all she does is drive around in a truck with a guy? Nobody wants to hear her point of view; they want to hear from the guy who’s “getting” her. Pretty much the only consistent exception on country radio is Kelsea Ballerini, and that’s because she’s sold herself short to sing about being this type of girl.

It’s fine if you like this music, I’m not attacking you for personal taste. This is not an attack on the artists either; some of them seem like perfectly nice people. This is simply about the music and the lyrics and the lessons they teach. and if you think I’m making a big deal out of this, I refer you back to the Whiskey riff article. People are simply jealous because they weren’t good-looking and popular and didn’t get the girls. The writer doesn’t even consider the girls at all in making this argument. That’s how insignificant songs like this make females. He didn’t even take into account females who might have a problem with this when he made that assumption because all he could see were losers who didn’t get them. And if a large portion, as he says, can relate to this type of music, then a large portion of the country are learning to be sexist pigs and think it’s normal. And I know this will not change a thing, but I can’t stand by either. Next time, consider your audience before you make an idiotic statement like this.

P.S. None of these artists are good-looking/sexy at all, give me a man who sings bass, and actually knows a George strait song instead of just name-checking him to sound cool.

P.P.S. Can you please refrain from writing any more stupid pieces, so I can get back to reviewing artists instead of replying to this shit?

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.