Tag Archives: songwriting

Random Thoughts of the Week: Songwriting and the Artist Identity Crisis

I have been wanting to address the lack of good songwriting in mainstream country music since I started this blog, and now is the perfect opportunity. Many of you have heard Danielle Bradbery’s terrible new single, “Friend Zone,” a pathetic attempt at relevancy that relies on fake drums, rap, a token banjo, and confusing sports metaphors to save Danielle’s already underwhelming career. (I had actually planned to rip apart this song, but SCM and Country Perspective have already done it for me, and this song is not going to save Danielle’s struggling career by any stretch of the imagination, so I’ll save my ranting for other worthy songs.) If by chance you haven’t heard it, here it is, consider yourself warned.

This song, as well as The Band Perry’s worse single “Live Forever” (I can’t bring myself to even post this piece of crap), have caused many to wonder if these artists have any sense of identity. Are they sellouts, or are they being forced to sing this bad pop music because they have no idea who they want to be? In both Danielle Bradbery and The Band Perry’s cases, Scott Borchetta was blamed for “turning his artists” into bad pop crossovers. Borchetta probably had a lot to do with it, but as much harm as he has caused the genre, it’s important to be fair here–and in the spirit of fairness, Borchetta also gave us Maddie & Tae, who produced the best mainstream country album of 2015 so far. So why do Maddie & Tae get to have their own “vision” for their music, while other artists are forced to sing whatever the label assumes will sell? I think it boils down to an artist’s identity, or lack thereof. If you watch The Voice for more than ten minutes, you will hear the phrase, “You know [or don’t know] who you are as an artist.” This is a crucial part of an artist’s career; a lot of people can sing, but not many have this part figured out. Maddie & Tae seem to have it figured out, but Danielle and The Band Perry obviously don’t, so they will sell out and sing whatever their label tells them will sell.

So what is causing this identity crisis in country artists? I think a large part of it has to do with the way many of today’s mainstream artists view songwriting–as an art, or as a business. Songwriting should, especially in country music, reveal things about the writer. Good songwriting should tell a story and often reflects the writer’s thoughts and emotions. This makes the art of songwriting relatable and is one thing that makes country music stand out among other genres. Say what you want about Taylor Swift, but there is a reason her music is so popular–she is an excellent, relatable songwriter. Songwriting also helps artists discover who they are and gives them individuality, which is another lost concept in country right now. This is songwriting as an art, and artists who recognize it as such will write good music and/or choose well-written music to release. But somehow, in the past five years, songwriting on Music Row has turned from this personal experience of connecting with the listeners and discovering artists’ identities into a formulaic hit-making process requiring at least three contributors. Thomas Rhett’s latest train wreck, “Vacation,” took fourteen songwriters, and it is one of the worst songs I have ever heard. How can Thomas Rhett or any of these artists ever hope to have an identity if they only contribute a line or two to a song, or rely on the Dallas Davidsons of the world to churn out #1 hits which relate to no one except frat boys and preteen girls? This is songwriting as a business, and if you recognize it as such, of course you would have no artist identity–you have never had to write anything from your heart.

I haven’t reviewed a great deal of albums and singles on this site yet, but one thing that has set good music apart consistently so far has been the songwriting. Jason Isbell, Alan Jackson, Courtney Patton, Kacey Musgraves, Maddie & Tae, and Kasey Chambers all immediately come to mind as names whose songwriting stood out–there were obviously others, and I mentioned them in the reviews, but I named these to illustrate the diversity in style among these albums. Not all of these albums were strictly country; represented here are both men and women, Americana, traditional country, Texas country, pop country, etc. They all stood out because they contained honest, relatable songwriting with the storytelling that sets country music apart. Each of these albums told me, both as a reviewer and as a fan, something about the respective artists. Rather than listening to polished-up, radio-ready singles, I was hearing something real from each of these artists. In short, the albums they made reflected their identities.

By contrast, the albums and singles I have ripped so far have had formulaic, unrelatable songwriting–Luke Bryan and Easton Corbin’s albums, Thomas Rhett’s aforementioned train wreck, and Kelsea Ballerini’s “Dibs” come to mind here. Not all mentioned here were strictly non-country; in fact, Easton Corbin’s album was pretty country musically. However, all of these lacked honest songwriting containing substance and relatability. Rather than telling honest stories, these songs were marketable singles written for the sole purpose of appealing to specific groups of people–in other words, these artists and writers have taken the art of songwriting and made it into a business. Every song I have given a negative review to has lacked the storytelling for which country has always been known best. And without a story to tell, how can an artist be expected to have an identity? And without an identity, why not sing whatever you think/hope will sell? Enter singles like “Friend Zone”–a song that desperately screams for us to relate to Danielle Bradbery when she can’t even relate to herself.

Tomato of the Week: Kacey Musgraves

I debated whether or not to do a Female Friday over Kacey Musgraves because she is well-known, but I think it is needed. Too many people know her and typecast her only for “Follow Your Arrow,” and she is much more than that. See Kacey’s full article on Female Friday!

Random Country Suggestion: Miranda Lambert–Revolution

If you want to find some good country songwriting, early Miranda Lambert is a great example of it. Both this and her first album, Kerosene, display her songwriting in full force.

Listen to Revolution

Non-Country Suggestion: Fleetwood Mac–Rumours

One of the most personal, relatable albums in history, written while all five members were going through separations. Two separations were within the band. They wrote honestly, and this produced the biggest album of their career.

Listen to Rumours

Female Fridays: Featuring Brandy Clark

Brandy Clark is known more for her songwriting, but she is also a talented singer who has received much critical acclaim. I am excited to feature her on this Female Friday.

How You Might Know Brandy

She’s known for her songwriting, often in connection with Kacey Musgraves and Shane McAnally. These three have co-written many of Kacey’s songs, but perhaps their most notable success is the Miranda Lambert hit “Mama’s Broken Heart.”

Bio

From Brandy Clark’s Web site:

“I get my inspiration from real people who are just surviving their life and getting through their day. That’s who I write songs for,” Clark explains. “I want to write songs for somebody who is working at a bank — if that person could write a song, what they would write. That’s my goal.”

Brandy Clark (born October 9, 1977, from Morton, Washington), was interested in music at an early age. She grew up with and was influenced by the music of Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, and Merle Haggard. After college, she began taking her music career more seriously. She enrolled at Belmont University in 1998 and studied commercial music. After graduation from Belmont, Brandy got a job with Leadership Music and eventually received a publishing deal.

Brandy has written many notable songs over the years. I already mentioned “Mama’s Broken Heart,” but she also co-wrote The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two,” and Kacey Musgraves’s “Follow Your Arrow.” Brandy is cited on songs by Reba McEntire, Keith Urban, Wade Bowen, and Sunny Sweeney, just to name a few. In fact, it is worth noting that Brandy was a co-writer of Sunny Sweeney’s “Bad Girl Phase,” which I mentioned in Sunny’s
Female Friday as being the first #1 single by a female artist on the Texas Music Chart. Since this column is about promoting females, it is also worth mentioning that Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves became two of only fourteen women to win a CMA for Song of the Year when “Follow Your Arrow” received this distinction in 2014. in Between all the writing for others, Brandy wrote several songs that eventually turned into an EP in 2012 and later into her debut album, 12 Stories, in 2013.

“I was just writing songs. But with titles like ‘Take a Little Pill’ and ‘Day She Got Divorced,’ artists wouldn’t cut those songs. However, they are some of my favorites and, artistically, I fit them,” says Clark , who decided to record her own album after playing “Get High” for her songwriting partner Shane McAnally. “Shane said that I could write a whole record of songs from that woman’s perspective and make an album that no one has ever made. That’s kind of what we did.”

And that’s what her debut album is–an album no one else would make, full of real “stories” of real people. 12 Stories was named by many critics as 2013’s best album–in fact, there are many who would argue that Brandy Clark deserves more recognition than her friend Kacey Musgraves (I am not touching that debate.) Brandy Clark is currently working on her second album; it is due out in 2016.

Why Brandy Belongs on Country Radio

She belongs there for the same reason that Kacey Musgraves does–she’s singing and writing real, relatable songs, and she’s not afraid of the truth. Radio won’t play Kacey for all of these reasons, and also she is too “country.” Brandy is too “country” for country radio too, and the fact that I have to even write this sentence is ridiculous. Brandy Clark was partly responsible for “Mama’s Broken Heart,” “Better Dig Two,” and “Follow Your Arrow,” but country radio can’t give her own music a fair chance? I don’t even know how to explain why she belongs on country radio–because in a world where country radio played country songs, Brandy Clark would be on the radio and making #1 hits.

Tracks I Recommend

I hesitate to pick apart what many consider to be the best album of 2013, but these are my personal favorites.

1. What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven–12 Stories
2. Hold my Hand–12 Stories
3. Pray to Jesus–12 Stories
4. Stripes–12 Stories
5. Hungover–12 Stories

Listen to 12 Stories

The song that made me a fan of Brandy Clark.

Female Fridays: Featuring Angaleena Presley

Last week, I featured her fellow Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe, so this week I thought I would introduce Angaleena Presley.

How You Might Know Angaleena

As mentioned above, she was a member of the Pistol Annies, along with Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe.

Bio

Angaleena Presley’s career has been considerably shorter than those of my previously featured females, so naturally her bio would be shorter. However, while digging for Angaleena info–I also knew less about her than the others I have featured–I found two things that together paint a far better and more accurate picture of the Angaleena I listen to than a long list of facts about her career ever could. From Angaleena’s Web site:

If there’s a pedigree for a modern country music star, then Angaleena Presley fits all of the criteria: a coal miner’s daughter; native of Beauty, Kentucky; a direct descendent of the original feuding McCoys; a one-time single mother; a graduate of both the school of hard knocks and college; a former cashier at both Wal-Mart and Winn-Dixie. Perhaps best of all the member of Platinum-selling Pistol Annies (with Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe) says she “doesn’t know how to not tell the truth”

From an interview with Rolling Stone, in reference to her musical influences:

When I was in college, I was in my dorm and I heard Patty Griffin singing “Sweet Lorraine.” I rose up and was like, “Whoa, she just said a bad word!” Loretta Lynn, she was forthcoming in her songs, but Patty Griffin was just like, “This is how it was: ‘My dad called me a [slut] and [a whore] on my wedding day.'” It opened some kind of Pandora’s box in my creative psyche. I think about a month later I wrote the first song that I thought, “OK, I think I might have something here.”

Angaleena Presley (born September 1st, 1976 in Martin County, Kentucky, and raised in beauty, Kentucky), has indeed gained a reputation for telling “the truth” in her songwriting. After graduating from Eastern Kentucky University, she moved to Nashville in 2000 and soon gained a publishing deal. Through her publisher, she later met Ashley Monroe, which would eventually pay off–but not until 2011, with the formation of the Pistol Annies. As I mentioned last week, they released two excellent albums, Hell on Heels (2011) and Annie Up (2013.) I have already introduced Ashley and Angaleena, and everyone knows Miranda, but I have debated doing an entire Female Friday with Pistol Annies as well, as their music is remarkable in its own right. One of my biggest disappointments last year was the news that Pistol Annies had broken up.

However, the breakup of the Annies was mostly due to the revival of Ashley’s solo career and the beginning of Angaleena’s. Angaleena’s debut album, American Middle Class, was released on October 14, 2014, under Slate Creek Records. It is a traditional country album with some elements of blues and bluegrass mixed in here and there. It does indeed tell the “truth,” containing songs about pregnancy, drug abuse, the bad economy, etc. The album was met with much critical acclaim, and Angaleena finally proved that she could succeed on her own just as Ashley and Miranda had done.

Why Angaleena Belongs on Country Radio

While I do not feel that she is “radio ready” in this current climate like the other women I have featured–they all have songs that lean slightly toward pop country or rock country–she would be ideal for radio if it actually played country instead of everything else. She would benefit if country split into different genres or if Americana started gaining a wider influence and stealing more country artists (this is the direction Kacey Musgraves is heading.) She is a modern day Loretta Lynn, penning songs about real life that she actually lived. I read the quote from her site above and immediately her songs and songs she wrote for Pistol Annies come to mind. She was a coal miner’s daughter from Kentucky, (“American Middle Class” and “Dry County Blues,”) a single mother (“Trading One Heartbreak for Another” and “Housewife’s Prayer” by Pistol Annies and her own song “Drunk,”) a cashier (“Grocery Store,”) etc. I’ll be honest here and say that she was an acquired taste for me both in the Annies and as a solo artist, but there is no question she is a talented singer and songwriter and deserves more recognition. I will also say that while I just described her as an acquired taste, I am glad I took the time to acquire it, because I truly enjoy Angaleena Presley music and am looking forward to her sophomore album.

Tracks I Recommend

Last week, I didn’t want to pick apart Ashley Monroe’s excellent album Like a Rose, feeling that to do so would be a disservice. Many would say the same about the picking apart of Angaleena’s American Middle Class as well. So before I do it, I will say that if you like more twang and/or bluegrass influence, you will like the whole album. There is not a bad song on it lyrically. The purpose of this highlighting of tracks is more to ease newcomers into Angaleena’s style.

1. American Middle Class–American Middle Class
2. Better off Red–American Middle Class
3. All I Ever Wanted–American Middle Class
4. Life of the Party–American Middle Class
5. Drunk–American Middle Class

Listen to American Middle Class

Also, if you are a Texas country fan like me, you should check out JB and the Moonshine Band’s “Black and White” featuring Angaleena Presley. There doesn’t seem to be a YouTube video of that, or I’d post it here. But it’s worth a listen, especially if you don’t end up liking Angaleena’s style.

Female Fridays: Featuring Ashley Monroe

Her new album, The Blade, is out today (I will have a review of it shortly.) In light of that, it seems natural to feature Ashley Monroe on this Female Friday.

How You Might Know Ashley

She’s the beautiful voice that completes Blake Shelton’s “Lonely Tonight.” Also, she was one-third (my favorite third) of the Pistol Annies–other Annies include Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley.

Bio

Ashley Monroe (born September 10, 1986, from Knoxville, Tennessee), has been paying her dues for many years. At age eleven, she won a talent competition in Pigeon Forge singing “I Want to be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” and landed a job in a theater performing several nights a week. Her idyllic life was turned upside down two years later, when her father died suddenly. Ashley mentions her father’s death often in her songs (“Like a Rose,” “Monroe Suede”.) Music was her outlet, and she became a very talented songwriter as she dealt with his death.

Ashley moved to Nashville soon after, and after a long search for a major label, Columbia Records finally took a chance on her, allowing her to start work on her debut album at nineteen. Two Singles were released, “Satisfied” and “I don’t Want To”–a duet with Ronnie Dunn–but neither charted well, and Ashley’s album went unreleased. Ashley and Columbia parted ways in 2007. (The album, Satisfied, was eventually released in 2009.)

It would be six years before Ashley would release another solo album. During those years, Ashley worked both as a songwriter and backing vocalist. Chances are, if you like country and listen to it often, you know a song that Ashley Monroe worked on. Songs that bear her writing include Jason Aldean’s “The Truth,” Miranda Lambert’s “Heart Like Mine,” and Carrie Underwood’s “Flat on the Floor.” Her backing vocals can be heard on Miranda’s “Me and Your Cigarettes,” and Wade Bowen’s “If We Ever Make it Home,” among others. In addition, she independently released an EP with Trent Dabbs (with the unoriginal title Ashley Monroe and Trent Dabbs), sang with Jack White’s Third Man House Band, and collaborated with The Raconteurs and Ricky Skaggs on a single called “Old Enough.” In 2012, she even performed a song called “Bruises” with Train and toured with the group.

The most pivotal event in Ashley’s career during this time was the formation of the Pistol Annies in 2011. Miranda Lambert and Ashley, now friends, formed the group with Angaleena Presley, making their surprise debut at the ACM Girls Night Out on April 22, 2011, with “hell on Heels.” They were an instant success and produced two remarkable albums, Hell on Heels (2011) and Annie Up (2013.) The success of the Annies rebuilt Ashley’s solo career and sparked Angaleena’s, unfortunately leading to the disbanding of the Annies in 2014. However, Ashley was signed by Warner Bros, and finally released her second solo album in 2013. The album was titled Like a Rose and was produced by Vince Gill. Like a Rose was one of the best albums I have heard in the last five years, and it was met with much deserved critical acclaim. She finally got the breakthrough she had worked so long to achieve with Like a Rose, proving that hard work and dedication really can and does pay off. My only complaint with it was it ended too soon–it only contained nine tracks, and I immediately wanted to hear more. Today I get that wish, as her third album, The Blade, is finally here. I will reserve comments on that for the review, although I will say it was also produced by Vince Gill, so one would expect it to be awesome.

Why Ashley Belongs on Country Radio

Now would be the perfect time to start playing Ashley Monroe on country radio. Everyone knows her from “Lonely Tonight.” Plus, a commenter on another site described her voice as “pure gold” and that’s the best way to put it. She is a great songwriter, but even when she didn’t write the song, she has a way of telling a story when she sings. It’s probably from dealing with the pain of her father’s death and having to grow up so young. At any rate, when Ashley Monroe sings, you want to listen, to sad songs especially, but really to anything. I have praised other women for their songwriting, but with Ashley, the strength lies in her voice. Not to mention her voice is authentically country. She could put pop beats or rock beats or whatever behind it–she doesn’t, she generally stays traditional with traces of pop here and there–but she would still sound country. We need a woman like that on the radio.

Tracks I Recommend

This is not counting The Blade, as I am doing an entire album review over that. In light of that, I feel it would be a disservice to pick apart Like a Rose, as it is all awesome. So just go listen to it. As for Satisfied, everything on it is great as well, but it is more of an acquired taste, especially for those who like less twang or are just starting with Ashley. So just go listen to Like a Rose and proceed from there. With that album you cannot go wrong.

Listen to Like a Rose