Tag Archives: Merle Haggard

Melody: The Most Forgotten and Forsaken Element in Music

“Nobody even attempts to write a melody.”

These were some of the infamous words of Merle Haggard when he gave his opinion on modern mainstream country back in 2015. Interesting words because while you can find plenty of people harping on the lack of lyrical content and substance in the mainstream, or bitching about the encroachment of other genres and electronic beats into their beloved country music, not many people have commented on what may be the most rampant problem running through modern American music: the consistent lack of memorable and engaging melodies.

But even though we don’t mention it, this makes sense in the mainstream. Much of the stuff coming from Music Row is unimaginative and forgettable, and the lack of melody is only one small problem. So yeah, maybe we don’t criticize it often enough, but it’s not a stretch to see the undeniable lack of care for this crucial element in mainstream country.

But I’d argue it’s an even bigger problem in the world of Americana and independent music; yep, you know, that world where everything is good, and we can’t criticize anything. IN fact, I’d say that the mainstream is maybe the best place to find entertaining melodies these days–and no, that’s not saying a lot because so much mainstream music is just downright boring, but the majority of the songs we call “guilty pleasures” that come out of the mainstream stick with us because they’re catchy. They get stuck in our heads. Sure, we know the lyrics are stupid, maybe even at times misogynistic. But it’s the melody, and/or that lively, infectious instrumentation that keeps us liking the song despite how our mind tells us we should feel about it.

Conversely, how many Americana projects have you listened to that while there weren’t any flaws per se, there was also nothing memorable whatsoever? Maybe you read reviews or heard from listeners how great a record was, how awesome the songwriting was, etc., and for whatever reason just could not get into the album. That’s not to take away from the special art of songwriting, and it’s also true music is by nature subjective, but sometimes, albums are ruined just by a lack of effort and care for the melodies. Ray Wylie Hubbard’s is a shining example of this and indeed the inspiration for this post; equally, John Moreland’s latest might well have been the most boring record of the year if not for those catchy hooks and enchanting melodies that kept you coming back enough times to really unwrap the brilliance in his lyrics.

This problem of forsaking melodies is no doubt directly related to the equally alarming lack of quality vocalists in the independent scenes, which is itself a topic worthy of an entire post. We question whether to criticize such things as a singer’s vocal ability, and indeed, things like tone can’t be helped, but the technical abilities of singers can also be improved. Shows like The Voice and American Idol have gone to the other extreme, painting a picture of vocal ability as everything without taking into account an artist’s ability to draw an audience in emotionally. This emotional connection is more vital than technical skill, But singing is also more than emotive interpreting; this is what makes it different from reading poetry. it’s also nice to hear a great vocalist sing the hell out of a song; that’s one of the reasons Lauren Alaina’s sophomore album was such a joy to listen to.

When singer-songwriters are writing songs to fit their increasingly limited vocal ranges and abilities, their melodies become limited as well and often become somewhat of an afterthought. The results are often good lyrics that were turned into boring, lifeless songs. I’ve heard numerous Americana albums like this in 2017, brimming with good songwriting but completely forgettable. A singer may indeed possess that special thing that connects them with an audience and allows them to draw emotion out of every word, but does that matter if those magical words are translated into boring, forgettable music? Melody is what brings the lyrics to life and makes the songs resonate with us and get stuck in our heads. A script is only as good as the actors who make it come alive onstage, and lyrics on a page are only as thoughtful and relatable as the vocalist who interprets them for the world and the melody to which the songwriter sets them.

We praise songwriters, and we say we’re living in the age of the song, but it’s more like the age of the lyric. These independent/Americana types are often so caught up in telling a story and/or being deep and thoughtful that they forget what makes music such a unique and treasured art form. It’s good to be artistic, but that artistry shouldn’t replace accessibility. Even our greatest songwriters like Jason Isbell are guilty of this; there’s some brilliant material on his latest album, but some of it is honestly just forgettable melodically. This is not to take away from Jason Isbell as an artist or a lyricist, more to paint a picture of just how deep the problem goes and to illustrate that even the greatest songwriters and albums suffer from this phenomenon in 2017.

There is a lot of talk these days, especially in this blogging world, about what, if any, of the music coming out currently will be remembered years from now. Not ten or twenty, but say, fifty years down the road. Will we be listening to any music from today like people still listen to Hank? That’s a whole different discussion, but I’d argue that it’s not just the lack of substance keeping songs from having that timeless quality. It’s not just shallow radio singles that will be forgotten, but many of our greatest songwriters in both mainstream and independent music will suffer the same fate if they continue to treat melody as some sort of secondary element. It’s that indefinable thing that keeps us coming back to a song years later, that recalls a memory, a specific place and time, and has us singing a chorus we haven’t heard in so long but to which we still can recite the words. It’s the melodies which linger on in our minds and stir our hearts, and I hate to see it becoming so marginalized, even by otherwise great musicians and lyricists. So songwriters, please don’t forget this crucial part of your craft, or treat it as somehow secondary to your lyrics. It’s the thing that holds them together and gives them character, taking those thoughts from your head and words on a page and turning them into timeless songs that we’ll sing for years to come.

Album Review: Willie Nelson–God’s Problem Child

Rating: 8/10

I’m not sure at what point it becomes ridiculous for me to sit here and attempt to judge the quality of Willie Nelson’s music and expect anyone to take me seriously. obviously, Willie has proven his output will stand the test of time, and as Josh, formerly of Country Perspective, said on Twitter, he’s putting out better music at eighty-three than most artists will in their entire careers. Having said that, I don’t think it’s an album that’s going to change your opinion of Willie Nelson; if you enjoyed his music, you’ll like this record too, but if you aren’t really a fan, I wouldn’t say this album is going to be anything earth-shattering that will change your mind. Personally, I’ve always been on the side that enjoys a good amount of Nelson’s music, and this album was another pleasant, if not mind-blowing. listen.

Mortality is a theme running heavily through this record, as other outlets have pointed out. Sometimes it’s metaphorically, such as in the opener, “Little House on the Hill,” where Willie Nelson seems to be referring to heaven. Sometimes it’s humorous, like in “Still Not Dead,” where Willie makes fun of the frequent death hoaxes surrounding him and says, “I woke up still not dead again today” despite what the Internet said. Sometimes the references are more introspective, such as in the song “True love,” where Nelson states that when it’s all over, he’ll still believe true love was a friend. Regardless, the end of life definitely overshadows this record; it’s both somber and peaceful, but I think that your mileage on this album will directly be affected by your ability to deal with these references.

There are frequent mentions of old age too, quite obviously in “old Timer” and more subtly in “It Gets Easier,” as Willie expresses that it gets easier to back out on your commitments as you get older. These types of songs can make the album less relatable at times, and that’s okay–just as Maddie & Tae’s youthful songs about growing up will speak more to their generation, these songs will no doubt speak more to Willie Nelson’s generation and those reflecting on the next stage of life.

I noted this record is peaceful, and that’s the perfect word to describe it sonically. It’s somewhere between the clean production of Sam Outlaw’s latest record and Jason Eady’s, with lots of quiet, introspective moments. And much like Outlaw’s, the overall mood this album puts you in as you listen says more about it than explaining the individual tracks. The aforementioned “True Love” is one of the best to capture this mood, along with “A Woman’s Love’ and the title track, which features Tony Joe White, Leon Russell, and Jamey Johnson. (Jamey Johnson continues his incredible run of lending his voice to amazing songs, by the way, and I’m beginning to think he’ll never release new music, just continue to appear in other people’s songs like this for the rest of eternity.) Another really nice moment, and one of the few that touches neither on old age nor death, is “Lady Luck,”–think of this as the more thoughtful, intuitive version of “Ace in the Hole” or a more laidback version of “The Gambler.” This is my personal favorite but that’s probably just because it’s more relatable to me than much of the album–or it could be because I have a partiality to poker. Another standout track is the closer, his tribute to Merle Haggard, “He Won’t Ever be Gone.” We’ve had a lot of Merle tributes, but this one is from a friend, and so this one just means much more.

If I have anything to say against this album, it’s just similar to Sam Outlaw’s in that parts of this can run together, and no song really blew me away on its own. IN the context of the album, many of these songs are great, but as I mentioned, part of this has to do with the overall mood and frame of mind created by this record. as I say, your mileage, I believe, will depend on your take on the old age and death references, but that’s not a criticism at all, just a personal preference. I want to make that especially clear since many of the best songs here deal with the end of life, and Willie Nelson has done a great job reflecting on that and capturing his state of mind through his songwriting.

So, overall, yeah, Willie Nelson has given us another good album and is still churning out quality country music at eighty-three–well, eighty-four after last Saturday. It’s a nice, pleasant listen, and while I wouldn’t say it’s anything groundbreaking, I would say it’s certainly worth your time. Hopefully I’ll still be struggling to find words for Willie Nelson albums well into the future.

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Album Review: Something Together by Jason Eady and Courtney Patton

Rating: 8/10

Music can and does touch all of us in different ways. Whether we’re playing it or singing it, or just simply listening to a great song, it connects with all of us in a way that nothing else can. For those of us who get to make music, that connection is even deeper. But few of us get the joy of what husband and wife Jason Eady and Courtney Patton have found, the gift of making music with someone we love. It is why duets can be uniquely powerful forms of expression, and it’s why fans of the two Texas artists have been anxious for a duets album from them for years. It would bring two incredibly talented artists and regular touring partners together, but more than that, it would be a timeless and personal display of the love and the music they share.

Last October, we all got our wish when it was announced an acoustic duets album, mostly of covers of songs previously recorded by each of them, would be available in early 2017. Then, with very little fanfare, the album dropped in December on iTunes and Amazon and is now available in physical copies. This is my first experience reviewing an album mostly of covers, but I feel that this one deserves my attention.

I won’t go through each track here because most of them are songs previously recorded by Eady or patton. These were selected by their fans, and they did a nice job highlighting some of the best of each artist’s individual work. If you are unfamiliar with one or both of them, this is a great place to start. Jason Eady’s “Cry Pretty,” a heartbreaking song about a man running into his ex and remembering how she looked when she left him, is arguably even better as an acoustic song with Courtney Patton’s backing vocals. Patton’s “Twelve Days,” a song she wrote for Eady about missing him on the road, means even more here with him harmonizing. Another excellent choice was “where I’ve Been,” a song written by Jason from the point of view of a woman and recorded by Courtney on last year’s So This is Life. The woman is lonely in her current relationship and telling the man that she’ll be there physically, but she isn’t committed to trying anymore because he is ignoring her; “If you ever decide that you ever wanna try again, I’ll be here in the morning, just don’t ask me where I’ve been.” It was a great solo, but it resonates even more when you hear it sung from both sides, the lonely woman and the man she’s addressing.

There are lighthearted moments on the album too. “Man on a Mountain,” first recorded by Eady, is a fun, upbeat song about a “mountin man” and a “valley girl” who would love to be with each other, but they can’t agree on anything. IN the end, they decide, “let’s meet in the middle, let’s never meet again.” “Move it on Home,” one of the few songs that neither had performed before, is another fun moment. The man is staying out late drinking in a bar while the woman is at home heating and reheating dinner. Eventually, he decides to go home “where heaven on earth and love is at.” Easily the most infectious part of the whole album is the closer, where Courtney takes the lead on the traditional “welcome Table.”

As I mentioned, not all of these songs were revised versions of the artist’s individual material. Eady takes the lead on a great rendition of Merle Haggard’s “My favorite Memory,” followed by a Patton-led track called “The words to My favorite Memory,” where she sings about playing the Haggard song when she found out her lover had died. The album highlight, written by eady and fellow Texas songwriter Adam Hood, is “Suffering Fools.” Here, a couple are staying with each other simply because “we know it’s the right thing to do.” They sing, in chilling harmony, “Why don’t you go your way, and I will go mine, and we won’t be suffering fools.” The harmony here, and in several other places throughout the record, is something special and showcases the musical and personal chemistry between them.

Jason Eady and Courtney Patton are each great artists in their own right, and a duets album from them is truly special. I do wish there had been more original songs, and some of the songs felt a little less like duets than just an acoustic version with backing vocals. But there is no doubt that these are excellent song choices and that the two are excellent together. If you don’t know one or both of these artists, this is a great place to start for good Texas country and authentic, honest songwriting. for fans of one or both of them, this is a good addition to each of their discographies. either way, it is definitely worth checking out.

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Album Review: Mo Pitney–Behind This Guitar

Rating: 7.5/10

First of all, I know I’m quite late on this album review, and it was honestly because it took this long for me to think of anything to say about it. Some albums provoke an immediate reaction in me, and with others it takes time and several listens. I decided it was better to comment late and have the review more accurately fit my thoughts than to try and force a premature opinion. I will also say this is going to be a love it or hate it kind of album for many, due to reasons I will explain shortly.

Mo Pitney’s debut album comes almost two years after the lead single, “Country,” and for many listeners, only about half of this album was new. We can attribute this to Pitney being in the unenviable position of being signed to Curb Records–if that comment means nothing to you, you can read all about the previous dealings of Mike Curb here. To that end, a good portion of this album came out in singles ahead of its release.
Read: Single Review: Mo Pitney’s “Boy and a Girl Thing”
Pitney has sparked the interest of traditionalists in much the same way as William Michael Morgan, with all of the previously mentioned singles bringing a decidedly country sound. The weak point of most of these singles was the lyrics. Now we finally have a whole album, and a lot more to go on with Mo Pitney.

The album opens with “Country,” which is a complete exploration of that word, from what it means to live in the country to country music to soldiers fighting for their country. This song was underwhelming to me when it was released as the lead single because the lyrics were simple to almost bordering on cheesy. However, in the context of this album, it has grown on me quite a lot. I have discovered this slightly corny quality seems to be a trademark of MO Pitney. It is this trademark which will make the album a love or hate thing for a lot of people because it is pretty much present throughout the album.

“Cleanup on Aisle 5” sees the narrator standing in a grocery store after just running into his ex. It seems like he thought he was over her, but standing here with his box of Cheerios he knows that isn’t true. There is a sincerity in this song that also shines throughout the album, and that believability combined with acoustic guitars and light fiddle make this song stand out. “Come Do a Little Life” is a simple little love song in which a man is inviting a woman to spend the rest of her life with him. He describes all the things they can do together, from seeing a high school football game to going to the hardware store. It’s simple, but it works; in reality, you spend a lot more time doing mundane things like going to hardware stores than say, hooking up on tailgates. “Just a Dog” is easily the album highlight. We hear about how the narrator found the dog ten years ago on the side of the road in the rain, and thought, “It’s just a dog, right?” But he took her home, and then we hear about how he saved her when she got hit by a car, how she “lost her place on the couch” when he met a girl, and then how she helped him the night the woman left. In the end, we find out the dog has just died, and he is finally realizing how much more she was than “just a dog.”

“Everywhere” is the only song with more contemporary instrumentation, but I think it mixes the traditional and the modern rather nicely. Pitney sings about someone being everywhere with him; it could be a person, or it could be God, based on the ambiguity of the lyrics. “Boy and a Girl Thing” is next, and this one is the track I tend to skip. It’s the song where the cheesy element goes too far, citing all the ways a boy and a girl react to each other throughout the different stages of their lives. I liked it better as a single than I do in the album’s context. Another highlight is the upbeat, fun “I Met Merle haggard Today.” This song is about just that, and it’s simply a song that is just fun to listen to. “Take the Chance” advises people to take a chance when they meet someone. It’s honestly the lesser version of “As She’s Walking Away” by the Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson; it’s the same message, but it’s very forgettable. It isn’t a bad song, but it could have been left off without effect.

“When I’m With You” is another fun, upbeat track about being with a woman; it doesn’t matter if they go anywhere or just sit together under the stars because it’s just about being with each other. The sincerity in Mo Pitney’s delivery helps the next track, “Love Her Like I Lost Her,” in which the man has a vivid dream about his girlfriend dying in a car crash. He calls her in the middle of the night to make sure she’s all right, and vows from now on to “love her like I lost her.” “Behind This Guitar” seems to be autobiographical, telling how Pitney grew up with music and is now living out his dream. He thanks all the people who helped get him to this point, and says, “I’m not the only one behind this guitar.” The album closes with “Give Me Jesus,” which many have cited as the worst moment of the whole thing. It’s a very simple song of faith, and personally, I would say even if you don’t have this faith, the honesty here is refreshing. It’s not a song like “Real Men Love Jesus,” where Christianity is some kind of checklist item of country cred. It’s genuine, and regardless of your beliefs, genuineness is desperately needed in country music right now.

Overall, this album is quite good. It remains country throughout, and there is a genuine sincerity about the whole thing. For me, it’s better as a collection of songs than as a whole album though, as the slight corniness starts to weigh the album down. Although there really isn’t a wrong step, aside from possibly “Boy and a Girl Thing,” there really isn’t much that stands out. “Just a Dog” is the exception to this. at the same time, I can see how many people would disagree, and find a lot to really love about this album. It’s one you really need to listen to for yourself, and definitely one that shows a lot of potential in Mo Pitney.

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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.