Tag Archives: Taylor Swift

Album Review: Liz Rose–Swimming Alone

Rating: 6/10

If you listened to the first two Taylor Swift albums–you know, back when she did sound rather country–you’ve heard a Liz Rose song. Liz Rose is most famous for having co-written most of the songs on Swift’s first two albums and helping to make her career, lending the skill of a professional songwriter to stories from a girl over thirty years younger and somehow making the partnership work to perfection. Liz Rose also has a songwriting credit on Little Big Town’s “Girl crush,” as well as many other mainstream hits, always seeming to find that balance between commercial success and critical acclaim. So when news came that she was releasing an album, that couldn’t be taken lightly; rather, it was like hearing about Natalie Hemby, Lori McKenna, and Brandy Clark before her, definitely something to be excited and intrigued about.

The difference? Liz Rose didn’t want to make this record “pitchable.” She didn’t come into it looking for subsequent records or tour dates–in fact, she said that after she wrote the album closer, “My Apology,” she felt like the story had ended, and this might be the only Liz rose record to ever grace our presence. Also, she’s not a performer, though her vocal talent here would counter that notion. Still, you have to come into this record knowing what it is to fully get it; it’s just a little story of Rose’s life told in song, and she just happened to have Nashville connections and a publishing company, so you stumbled upon a copy.

That’s the cool thing about this record. It’s dated, but not in the timeless, throwback way of Colter wall, more like in the way of your mom or aunt or grandma telling their stories about growing up in the 50’s and 60’s. It’s trapped there in that time period, and that’s why it’s crucial to understand where Liz Rose is coming from lest it just be an out-of-date, old-fashioned affair. One of the best songs here is the opener, “Grocery Money,” where Rose tells of her mother’s sacrifice and shares the details about growing up with little but somehow always having enough to get by. You’ll hear in “Five ‘n’ Dime” how she worked with her family at one of these stores, in “Woodstock” that she was pissed off to be too young in 1969 to go, and in “Tulsa” about an adventure with her best friend when she was thirteen and ran away from home to “God knows where, Oklahoma.” You’ll get a sense of her fearlessness and motivation to carve out a career for herself in the songwriting industry, an industry she entered at the age of thirty-seven, when you hear “Swimming Alone” and learn that she’s used to finding her own way. You’ll get a glimpse into her love life with “Letters From Prison,” telling the story of a teenage boyfriend who later sent letters to her office and wanted autographs of country stars to distract him from his “personal hell,” and “Ex-Husbands,” the humorous tale of her marriage history that is the highlight of this record and has the potential to get cut despite Rose writing the album to be “unpitchable.” There are also more touching moments, like the aforementioned “My Apology,” where Liz Rose apologizes to her parents, old lovers, and even herself for her mistakes, and “Yellow Room,” where she’s missing and saying goodbye to her father. all in all, it’s a very personal, very unique reflection of her life, much like a snapshot into the life of a relative or a friend, only told in musical form.

AT the same time, that’s also the thing that holds this record back. It’s very personal and cool, but in many places so much so that it won’t be relatable to many. That’s not what Liz rose was going for here, though; she just wanted to make a record for herself. I think people who grew up in these same times will find much to relate to and to love about this album anyway, and this is why I featured it. Personally, although it’s a really cool album and idea, and although the production makes it much more catchy and less boring than these types of singer-songwriter albums generally are, it doesn’t hold up for me beyond the initial interesting glimpse into the life of Liz Rose. The songs “Grocery Money,” “ex-Husbands,” and “Woodstock” stand out above the others, and as a fan, I would pick them off the record; indeed, that’s almost what I did in order to feature Liz rose and this album. I wanted to enjoy this more, particularly as someone who respects the songwriting of Rose, but at the end of the day, a lot of it just isn’t for me, and that directly speaks to the fact that I can’t really relate to these stories and times. But it’s a record that will be for a lot of people despite, or perhaps even because of, its personal nature. People from Rose’s generation especially will connect to this album, and in light of Liz Rose’s intent with this project, the result was a cool listen if nothing else.

Listen to Album

Random Thoughts of the Week: The “Random Thoughts” of Merle Haggard and Jason Aldean

I was actually going to focus this entirely on merle Haggard until today, when I heard of the news of Jason Aldean’s comments. Both Haggard and Aldean shared some very interesting random thoughts on country music this week, and they are made even more interesting in light of each other, so I decided to look at them together.

In an interview on September 9th, Merle Haggard said, of modern country music,

It needs a melody real bad. Not sure what they’ll have to remember. A song is defined as words put to music, but I don’t hear any music. All I hear is the same band, the same sound, and everybody screaming to the ceiling. You stand off at a distance and you couldn’t tell who they are. They are all screaming for one note they can barely get. I don’t find it very entertaining. I wish I did.

This comes after these comments on September 3rd, shared in another interview:

I can’t tell what they’re doing. They’re talking about screwing on a pickup tailgate and things of that nature. I don’t find no substance. I don’t find anything you can whistle and nobody even attempts to write a melody. It’s more of that kids stuff. It’s hot right now, but I’ll tell you what, it’s cooling off.

Now, aside from the obvious fact that Merle Haggard has just said what many of us are thinking, this news is significant because these words have come from a legend. Mainstream outlets are actually reporting it; Merle Haggard is name-dropped in many of today’s songs, and yet he is calling out mainstream country. A more underrated but no less significant fact is that he said it’s “cooling off”–Merle Haggard has been around awhile, and if he says a trend is dying, we all might want to listen to him. Also, Merle points out Sturgill Simpson and
Taylor Swift, of all people, as being current artists he respects. Sturgill Simpson, seen by many people on these blogs as our biggest hope, who carries a giant torch for traditional country, and Taylor Swift, who, even though she eventually went pop and made an entire career on “kid stuff” knows how to write a melody better than most of our generation. I love that he called out Swift especially, because as I said, she made a name for herself writing “kid stuff.” By mentioning her name, Merle Haggard is separating himself from those “old” country fans who just want everything to sound like Hank Williams. He’s acknowledging that you can still write “kid stuff” and be relatable; also, as a commenter on SCM pointed out, Taylor was a kid when she wrote “kid stuff,” whereas the bros are adult frat boys.

And speaking of the bros, there’s one that actually agrees with Haggard…well, sort of. Monday, (September 14th), Jason Aldean said this when asked about the lack of female representation in mainstream country music,

I feel like a lot of times female singers, to me, when they’re singing – and I’ll probably kick myself for saying this – a lot of times, it just seems like I can’t distinguish one from the other sometimes if I just listen to them, you know? A lot of times they just sound really similar to me.

Well, cluelessness of that statement aside, it does seem interesting that Aldean hears the sameness in country music that Haggard noted. However, back to the cluelessness–so he can tell all the bros apart? The females are easily more distinguishable–has anyone here heard Kelsea Ballerini sing and assumed it was Miranda Lambert? Then Aldean went on to say:

…you have some that come out like a Carrie [Underwood] or Miranda [Lambert] or somebody like that, that really has a different, distinctive sound to their voice, then it’s like, oh, okay, you can tell them apart all of a sudden. They go on to be obviously big stars, but I think it’s because you can distinguish between them … Listening to country radio, you always have these labels that are putting out new acts and it’s like, you already don’t know who this person is. So what is going to make you remember them?

Oh, okay, so he can tell two females apart on the radio: the two that are played on country radio!!! Here’s a thought; I bet, just maybe, possibly, if he heard more females, he might be able to tell more of them apart! So, in reference to females, his comments become absolutely ridiculous. However, in reference to country in general, it is interesting that both Merle Haggard and Jason Aldean, who come from very different backgrounds and perspectives, have noticed a sameness and lack of individuality in country music. Too bad Jason Aldean’s comments were only directed at women; Merle Haggard made no distinction between men and women. Still, regardless of the intent of Jason Aldean, his comments were no less honest than those of Merle Haggard, and both point to an increasing notice of, and concern for, the lack of individuality in a genre that once embraced it.

Tomato of the Week: Courtney Patton

I am going to turn my attention to the Texas scene for this week’s Female Friday–it seems Texas is just as lacking in female representation as Nashville–and I look forward to featuring Courtney Patton.

Random Country Suggestion: Josh Turner–“Lay Low”

The excellent single from the album that has yet to be released or even announced.

Non-Country Suggestion: Kelsea Ballerini–“Secondhand Smoke”

Kelsea Ballerini is a terrible country artist, and should have never been classified as such. But her debut album actually had some decent pop songs and I put this here for that reason; listen to it as a pop song. It’s a personal song for Ballerini and should not be overlooked because of the atrocious “Dibs,” “Yeah Boy,” etc.

One Last Thought

Congratulations to Lindi Ortega, who won the Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA) 2015 Roots Artist of the Year award Saturday night (September 12th.) This is Lindi’s second win in a row, and hope for females, independent/Americana/roots artists, and music of substance everywhere.

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 Maddie & Tae

Their first full-length album is available today, so today is all about Maddie & Tae. As usual, the album review will come later.

How You Might Know Maddie & Tae

Unlike the others I have featured, most of you probably do know Maddie & Tae, and if you’re just a casual mainstream country listener, you should still know their breakthrough hit “Girl in a Country Song.”

Bio

From Maddie & Tae’s Web site:

“We are Country,” says Maddie. “We love all music, but we’re girls from where Country comes from. It’s who we are; it’s how we live. And that’s the music we want to make. It makes us happy, but like what we write about, it’s also who we are.”

“Honesty’s always the best policy,” says Tae. “We’re telling our stories and hope people can relate.”

Madison Marlow (born July 7, 1995, from Sugar Land Texas), and Taylor Dye (born September 18, 1995, from Ada, Oklahoma), became Maddie & Tae when they met in high school through a mutual vocal coach. After high school, they moved to Nashville and gained a publishing deal with Dot Records, which is, shockingly, an imprint of Big Machine. That’s right, the duo who released “Girl in a Country Song” is on the same label as Taylor Swift and Florida Georgia Line. On St. Patrick’s Day in 2014, Maddie & Tae sat down to write “Girl in a Country Song” after Maddie expressed a heartfelt sympathy for the girls mentioned in bro country songs who are good for little more than sitting on tailgates in cut-off jeans. Together with Aaron Scherz, the duo wrote what would become an anti-bro-country anthem and a breakout hit for Maddie & Tae. It went to #1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart in December 2014, becoming the second debut single by a female duo in history to do so.

Maddie & Tae released an excellent EP in November 2014, featuring the songs “Sierra,” “Your Side of Town,” and the current single, “Fly,” which has reached #12 on Billboard Country Airplay and will most likely go recurrent shortly after the album release. It is worth noting that Maddie & Tae came on the scene during a time when I had all but alienated myself from country music. I talked about this in my
Random Thoughts column this week. The Maddie & Tae EP, with its fiddles, banjos being used correctly, and country lyrics, was the thing that started to bring me back to country. I hoped an EP was not all we would get from them, and thankfully, now we have a full-length album. Their long-awaited debut album, Start Here, is finally here today, and a review is coming.

Why Maddie & Tae Belong on Country Radio

I’ll keep this short, since they’ve already had radio success. Mainly, I just want to see that success continue. They deserve to be on country radio because they bring a youthfulness and relatability, the kind that Kelsea Ballerini and Taylor Swift bring. However, Maddie & Tae are actually country, as Maddie points out in her quote. Kelsea Ballerini is “calling dibs” on being the girl in the truck; Maddie & Tae are calling out the bros for their sexist lyrics. Kelsea Ballerini is using slang and straight pop instrumentation; Maddie & Tae are using catchy country lyrics backed by fiddles and mandolins. Most of all, Tae talks about honesty in the above quote, and isn’t that what country is all about? These two are going to be integral in bringing the teenage fan base back to country, and they have the ability to make actual country cool.

Tracks I Recommend

I recommend the entire Maddie & Tae EP. But all those songs are on the album, so just wait for the review.

Here’s a song which I hope will be a single and which could probably do a lot better at radio than “Fly.”

Random Thoughts of the Week: How Country Music Made me a Nicki Minaj Fan

Now, before anyone loses respect for me due to the above statement or decides my opinions about country music are no longer valid, please understand that title for what it was. Also, understand that we all are music lovers first, before genre lines ever come into play. I say this because I have seen comments on other sites saying people who profess love and/or knowledge of other genres do not care as much about country music as those who love country exclusively. So, as ridiculous an opinion as this might be, I felt I should address it before making my main point.

Yesterday, (August 24th),
Saving Country Music
published an article containing some of the preliminary results of a study conducted by McMaster University. The university is studying the open-mindedness of music fans of specific genres to other genres. In other words, if someone listens to mostly country music, are they more or less likely to also listen to other genres? According to the study, country fans rank fourth in open-mindedness among the ten genres studied. The most interesting early finding was that rap, dance, and pop fans are the three most cloes-minded groups. In other words, people who listen to these three genres are not likely to be open to other music. Also, the study highlighted some “asymmetrical pairings” between certain genres. One such pairing was country and pop; country fans are more likely to listen to pop, but pop fans won’t share that love for country. So, those fans who become “country” fans because of Sam Hunt won’t suddenly start listening to Kacey Musgraves, but a country fan who likes Taylor Swift might then develop a taste for Katy Perry.

This explains why, in its effort to please the close-minded pop fans flooding “country” music, country has all but forsaken its roots. Heaven forbid a fifteen-year-old be subjected to the lyricism of Cam’s “Burning House” when she could learn about partying and sex from Luke Bryan’s douche masterpiece “Kick The Dust Up.” Country singers even go so far as to call actual country music boring and paint the fans as close-minded old people, all for the sake of keeping their fickle pop fan base happy.

So if we’re not making Kacey Musgraves fans out of Sam Hunt groupies, what is this wave of bad pop music actually doing? Well, this is what happened in my case. I grew up with country in the 90’s and 00’s. I liked most country and even the pop country of early Taylor Swift. By 2010, country radio was becoming one tailgating song after another. The country that I loved, which used to feature steel guitars, fiddles, and storytelling, now came with hip-hop beats, rap, and lyrics about clubbing. I didn’t know about all the country I could be listening to; all I knew was country radio. In my mind, country had died. I tried to like the bro country and pop country, but I grew more and more frustrated with it until last year, when I decided that if country was dead, I should find something else to listen to. I had listened to so much bad pop music that I welcomed good pop music. Even their club songs are better than country’s club songs. If I have to listen to that anyway, I’d certainly rather hear Nicki Minaj’s “The Night is Still Young” than Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night.” I’ll always love country more, but when your choices are pop and worse pop with a twang, you take pop any day. During that time, I came to appreciate a considerable amount of pop music. I am extremely grateful for sites like SCM and Country Perspective that helped me find good country music again. Country music is still alive and well, and for that, I can be thankfull. Country music is still my favorite genre because it carries lyrics of substance, but as a music lover first, I am glad in a way that I was open to pop. (I guess that’s what comes from being an open-minded country fan.) I am certainly glad that is not all I have the choice of listening to though. These days, I would say I listen to about 80% country and 20% pop. I have always liked a little music from other genres as well, including rock, Christian, and r&b, but country and pop are the two I listen to on a regular basis. Having said that, I still hate most of the crap on country radio because it is bad pop and worse country.

The alarming thing is that my case seems to be more common than it should be. People argue that Sam Hunt or Taylor Swift can bring someone into country, and then this person might suddenly start liking Ashley Monroe and Alan Jackson. This sounds ridiculous on the surface, and now a study has backed it up. Also, pop fans are by definition listening to what is popular; in other words, someone who is introduced to “country” because of Sam Hunt is generally not going to go seeking Ashley Monroe and Alan Jackson. And seeking is what they’d have to do, because God forbid country radio play anything with substance. It seems far more likely, then, that someone who likes Ashley Monroe and Alan Jackson but who doesn’t hear anything except bad pop music on the local country station, would switch the station in exasperation and develop an appreciation for whatever is playing. I imagine there are a lot more people who have Ashley Monroe and Nicki Minaj in their iTunes library than those who have Ashley Monroe and Sam Hunt. Even more than that, there are those who have Sam Hunt and Nicki Minaj, because out of the three, these two are the most similar, which says a lot, (and nothing good) about the state of country music. Country fans are not being created by all this pop influence. All that is happening is that more pop fans are being created in response to the bad excuse for pop music that country continues to produce. By catering to the close-minded pop fans, country music continues to lose its identity in favor of being an inferior version of the music these close-minded fans love.

Tomatoes of the Week: Maddie & Tae

Their debut album comes out Friday, so they will be our featured females.

Random Country Suggestion: Miranda Lambert–“Roots and Wings”

Sadly, this wasn’t chosen as a single and we are stuck with “Smokin’ and Drinkin'” instead.

Non-Country Suggestion: Nicki Minaj: “All Things Go”

One of the results of me being an open-minded country fan.