Tag Archives: Texas country

Review: Jake Worthington–hell of a Highway EP

Rating: 7/10

Jake Worthington, whom many will remember from The Voice and perhaps most specifically from that wonderful 2014 performance of Keith Whitley’s “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” is probably the most promising traditional country artist to have come from that show. Sure, we’ve had success in the country world from RaeLynn recently, as well as some for Cassadee Pope and others, but if we’re just talking about straight-up, traditional country, Jake Worthington is the one with the most potential. You cheer for him when he gets success on the Texas charts and hope his name recognition and experience from the show can help him, because you know he is the real deal, and you want to see that potential realized.

His sophomore EP only strengthens that notion. You only get five songs and fifteen minutes, but Jake uses every minute to further reinforce his traditional country sound and lyrics. You get three heartbreak songs in “Big Time Lonesome,” “A Lot of Room to Talk,” and “Hell of a Highway” that, while they probably shouldn’t have been placed right in a row, still all sound unique and tell a different story. “How do You Honky Tonk” is reminiscent of a 90s radio hit and manages to be fun and upbeat without veering into the territory of cliché. “Don’t Think Twice” is probably the weakest of the five, but it’s still a nice love song, and Jake delivers a strong effort here, especially considering the length. The fact is, it’s one of three EPs I’ve enjoyed this year (the others being Whitney Rose’s South Texas Suite and Lindi Ortega’s Till the Goin’ Gets Gone.)

However, I can’t help but feel that it’s time for Jake Worthington to release an album. He’s given us two EPs now when he could have delivered one full-length project; both EPs were strong, but I think more people would be paying attention to an album. This has been debated a lot recently, but the fact is that more people pay attention to albums, for better or worse, and that’s mainly because Eps often leave you wanting more. With both Whitney Rose and Lindi Ortega, the projects were somewhat of an exception, each reflecting a time in the artist’s life that might not have been captured if they waited to release full albums. Those projects both had a cohesive theme despite their short length and therefore stood out as only few EPs manage to do. With Jake Worthington’s Hell of a Highway, there’s no overarching theme that holds this together–it feels more like a preview of Jake, and while that worked nicely for his debut EP, it doesn’t work as well this time. Still, it says something about these songs and Jake Worthington’s potential that this EP still manages to stand out despite these factors. As I mentioned, it’s one of only three that have made an impact on me in 2017, and that can’t be taken lightly. It took so long after his release to write about this because it’s harder to talk about EPs in general–but that’s also a testament to the fact that this particular EP still deserves talking about. All in all, it will leave you wanting more, but it’s still a nice place to start with Jake Worthington’s music.

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Album Review: Jon Wolfe’s Any Night in Texas is One Giant Cliché

Rating: 3.5/10

Remember when I said in Texas, just like Nashville, there are basically two paths? One is the more serious, singer-songwriter path, and the other is the more commercial one, and neither are inherently awful. In fact, I like Aaron Watson’s latest record just fine; that’s a fun, uncomplicated album, and there are a few deeper songs sprinkled in as well. But the point is, I’m not criticizing Jon Wolfe and Any Night in Texas because it’s not some groundbreaking Texas country masterpiece–it’s just that it’s one cliché after another, and instead of being fun and lighthearted, it’s mostly just generic bullshit. And if it came out of Nashville, we’d all be saying so, but since it’s Texas-flavored, we hesitate–but if I’m going to sit here and praise the considerable amount of good pouring out of Texas and Oklahoma, I also can’t ignore the bad that comes with it.

It’s not as if Jon Wolfe hasn’t made safe, commercial-sounding Texas country before, but the amount of moonlit back roads and riding shotgun all over this record would rival that on some of Luke Bryan’s albums–also, I thought bro country had died? And when I said Texas-flavored, just look at the title; “any night in Texas” is perfect here because it’s all the worn-out clichés of mainstream country, plus songs like “Boots on a Dance floor” to make the album more Texan. But just because it’s more Texan, that doesn’t mean it’s more (dare I say it) authentic–just because Wolfe says in the title track that wild kisses on back roads can happen “any night in Texas,” are we supposed to think this is any better or more original than mainstream songs saying the same damn thing? And if we’re not on back roads, you guessed it, we’re in clubs and bars. “Airport Kiss” is essentially a request by this guy in a bar to have his girlfriend make out with him right there as if they were in the airport, or as if he were about to go to war. And then there’s “A Country Boy’s Life Well-Lived,” which wastes some truly great fiddle on pandering lyrics about a hard-working man; we get “cold beer,” “boots,” “American made”–you get the picture.

Sunny Sweeney arrives on the heartbreak song “Drink for Two,” and I felt sure her appearance would save this track. She does make it better, but even this is a little of a letdown; the song is saying that the only good thing about losing each other is that they can now drink twice as much. To be fair to this song, I think it could have been better with more interesting production…and that leads me to my next point.

There’s nothing wrong with making fun songs and albums, and look, clichés aren’t always the end of the world. It’s just that if you’re going for this, you need to make the production lively and interesting, and through most of this record, it’s anything but that. I heard it described as stiff, and that’s a great way to put it; if you’re going to make songs like this, at least do it right. And this goes even more for Texas artists than Nashville artists because Texas artists have such a commitment to live music. I don’t even think these songs would sound interesting live.

So, the brightest spots here are the aforementioned “Drink for Two” and the closer, “Long Song.” I did think sunny Sweeney would have made the former a highlight, but like I said, the production really took that song down. Still, that one is at least more interesting. “Long Song” is another one in a club or a bar, but it’s got a better premise, as the narrator is hoping for more time to spend with this woman, but if it’s their last dance at the end of the night, he at least wants it to be a long song. This one, again, is more interesting, and it tries to go a little deeper than the surface.

There are a couple of other brighter moments on the album too, and right now you might be wondering why I didn’t just feature some of this in “Memorable Songs.” Well, several reasons. One, even the brighter moments are honestly not memorable, and I don’t think I’ll return to any of this. Two, because Texas artists and independent artists should be judged equally with the mainstream, and if this came out of Nashville, we’d all be quick to criticize it. It’s not better just because it came out of Texas. Three, honest criticism from me adds to the validity of my praise of artists within the Texas scene, and when I say John Baumann made a damn good record, you can believe that and not question whether I’m biased toward Texas and Red Dirt music. And finally, and most importantly, because Texas artists can learn a lesson from Nashville; you have freedom to be yourself in the Texas scene, so use it. Don’t try to cater to trends, it usually always fails spectacularly. Be a Jason Eady or be an Aaron Watson, but don’t be something you’re not, especially when you don’t have to in order to please some label–it’s not the lighthearted material on this album that kills it, it’s the clichés, the way it sounds fake, and perhaps most of all, the way Jon Wolfe just sounds bored here. I don’t care what type of artist Jon Wolfe wants to be, but it’s obvious this record isn’t him, and at the end of the day, I just want to hear Jon Wolfe. I wish I heard him on Any Night in Texas, and I’m sorry to say I don’t.

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The Decent

The Texas-Flavored Cliché

Album Review: John Baumann–Proving Grounds

Rating: 8.5/10

Texas country and Red dirt, despite all of the many influences and sounds, still really comes down to two sides, just like its Nashville counterpart–there’s more of an equal playing field in Texas and Oklahoma, and that’s ultimately the difference, but the point is, you still have your serious, singer-songwriter types and your more pragmatic, commercial types. The former would be the Jason Eadys and Courtney Pattons and Jamie Lin Wilsons, and the latter would be the Aaron Watsons and Josh Abbotts, and the beauty of it all is that each artist gets to choose their own path. And then sometimes, you get artists like Turnpike Troubadours; I remember Jamie Lin Wilson telling me they could play in listening rooms or big venues because Evan Felker writes deep songs “that also make you want to party.” And it would seem that John Baumann has managed to capture that spirit as well on his latest album, Proving Grounds, effortlessly blending the serious and the fun, the bright and the dark, into a really enjoyable album, an album that I think will have quite a lot of mileage throughout the year.

John Baumann has said that this is his most personal record, and you can feel that echoing throughout the album, from the stirring opener, “Here I Come,” to the nostalgic closer, “Pontiacs,” which goes on for over eight minutes. The opener details Baumann’s dreams as a child to one day become a successful singer-songwriter and reflects on his life now as he gets closer to being a “high plains troubadour.” I think “High Plains Troubadour” would have been a great name for this record. The closer, as I mentioned, is nostalgic and sees John Baumann as an adult, wishing for just one more day to be young. Admittedly, this is not one of my personal favorite tracks, but it does serve as a closing thought to the journey started in “Here I Come,” and together, the two frame the album nicely. In between, we learn, in sharp detail, the pain of Baumann’s father dying in “Old Stone Church,” and how each family member coped in their own way. With its simple melody and honest, glaringly specific lyrics, this one stands out proudly on the album and will relate to anyone who has been through the pain of losing a loved one despite it being so personal to Baumann.

In less autobiographical, but no less serious, moments, there’s the beautiful love song “Turquoise” and the thoughtful “Lonely in Bars”–I’d like to take a moment to point out that the former takes place entirely by a river in the moonlight, and that the latter is about two people meeting in a bar and the offer for more, and yet neither of these songs manage to be clichéd, disrespectful, generic, etc. IN “Turquoise,” the only parts of the woman we ever hear about are her “turquoise eyes” and it never goes further than “the first kiss I plan to give her.” In the latter, the story line goes far deeper than just meeting at a bar and hooking up; you hear the details about the woman not having a ring and having been in a troubled relationship with an older man, and you hear the narrator making the offer to stop being lonely in bars and see what happens, “embarrassment be damned.” Either of these, especially “Lonely in Bars,” could legitimately be mainstream hits, or they could have been, if they were less well-written or respectful. Essentially, they started with moonlit rivers and midnight bars, the foundations for mainstream hits, and then actually progressed into great songs.

Mixed in with all these great songs, we get the fun side of John Baumann. “The Trouble with Drinkin'” has got to be one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard this year; that fiddle is awesome, and it would be great live. There’s another one dealing with addiction in “Heavy Head,” and the beauty in “Turquoise” is followed by the more lighthearted “Love #1” which could be seen as the continuation to that song. Texas songwriters are often criticized–and many times rightfully so–for their continuous references to Texas, but “Holding it Down” manages to be clever, witty, and catchy despite this. There are so many artists that could take a lesson from this–you can make a song about Texas in a smart way. “When Ophelia Comes to Town,” with its lively, rocking production, is one of my personal favorites here, and one of the most fun; it details all the things the narrator does to get ready for a woman to visit, and all the things they’ll do once she arrives. I wasn’t expecting the twist at the end, and I almost wish it had stayed fun because in the end, he gets word that “Miss Ophelia’s dead.” But the song’s still fun, and it’s still one of the standouts for me.

So, if you haven’t figured it out, this is a great album. It’s got some excellent songwriting, and it’s a good balance between the serious and fun songs. Hopefully, John Baumann continues in this direction, writing more personal stuff, because this is where his writing shines, and I think it will only get better. This is one of the best Texas country albums released in 2017 so far and one that gets better with each listen.

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Album Review: Robyn Ludwick–This Tall to Ride

Rating: 7.5/10

If you want a good endorsement for Robyn Ludwick and her music, Jamie Lin Wilson recommended her to me back in September when I asked her to give us the names of some Texas country females we should be listening to. Robyn’s also the sister of Charlie and Bruce Robison which definitely counts for a lot in the Texas scene. I could go on with more of an introduction, but those two points alone should get you interested right away, even before we get into the fascinating album that is This Tall to Ride.

This Tall To Ride–yeah, that’s certainly an appropriate name because this record and the material presented here won’t be for the faint of heart. Like a height restriction on a roller coaster, the title is there to warn unsuspecting listeners, and to let you know just what kind of ride you’re embarking on, and indeed to offer you the chance to turn around at the last minute and avoid this adventure altogether. It’s a ride that takes you through life on the streets and lonely motels, and tells stories of coping with hard times by turning to vices. Yeah, that last has been done a thousand times in country–but not Robyn Ludwick’s way, where the vices are often cocaine and casual, or even solicited, sex. I counted the word “cocaine” twelve times on this record, and you don’t hear a lyric like the opening line to the excellent “Texas Jesus” in just any country project–“She says baby, I don’t jerk just anyone, but this one’s under the table, it’s gonna be loads of fun. But he don’t care, she’s like Mexican heroin, and it’s blockin’ his hurt for awhile.”

That theme of blocking hurt and pain permeates this album, and it’s what makes all the drug references somehow fit; it’s like rock lyrics, but told with a country songwriter’s care for crafting a story, almost the opposite of the way in which Texas country artists normally mix the two genres. Robyn Ludwick writes and sings in a manner that makes you feel all the sorrow of these characters and understand why they often turn to drugs and strangers for comfort. She has taken their lives and almost made them seem glamorous, and that takes as much of a talent as writing your own stories in song, if not more–it’s interesting that she can step so well into these roles and sing with such conviction. And that’s not what she’ll sing about on this whole album, but it’s where her writing shines brightest, and it’s where the unique, sort of raspy tones in her vocal quality work to perfection to add a rough edge to these songs. That rawness in her voice especially enhances “Freight Train,” one of the other standout moments on this album.

This record is a bit hard to judge because there’s some filler mixed in with some absolute gems. You have some truly excellent songs; I already mentioned “Freight Train” and “Texas Jesus,” and I can add “Bars Ain’t Closin’,” “Lie to Me,” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Shoes” to that too. “Bars Ain’t Closin'” features some nice steel guitar as well and tells a great, desperate story of heartbreak and missing someone; it’s cool to hear more country instrumentation paired with lyrics like Robyn’s, and it makes her and these songs all the more unique within this subgenre of Texas country. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Shoes” speaks of life on the streets, and those sighs explain perfectly what the main characters were seeking when Ludwick sings, “she didn’t love him, but on the streets, you get hungry man.” But then, mixed in with these standouts, there are just some bland tracks like “Love You For It,”–which is an unfortunate opener that won’t hold your attention like an opener should–and “Junkies and Clowns.” Nothing bad on the album, just really mediocre songs, especially in comparison to some of the others–definitely what Country Perspective would have dubbed wallpaper. It was really difficult to rate this, and in that respect, it reminded me of Jaime Wyatt’s latest album because the good here is absolutely great, but there’s also some really average to balance it out. The one thing I will say for the weaker tracks, though, is that the melodies are engaging. IN fact, melody is one of the strongest points of the album all the way through, and it serves to add another element of accessibility to lyrics like these that might not otherwise be enjoyable and/or relatable.

Overall, this is just a cool, unique album. No, it’s not going to be for everyone, but that’s part of music and art, and the fact that this could be polarizing speaks both to the talent and audacity of Robyn Ludwick and to the fact that this record had something to say. Credit to Robyn for telling the stories of people so often ignored and/or misunderstood by society, and for allowing us all a glimpse into their lives and perspectives, exploring themes so seldom ventured into in country music. There’s some damn great music on here too; some of these tracks are honestly just brilliant in songwriting, and their melodies will stay with you. There’s some mediocrity and filler, and based on the outstanding parts of the album, Robyn Ludwick is capable of better, but it balances out to be a solid album, and worth your time, if indeed you’re ready for the roller coaster. Cool record, glad I went along for the ride.

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Album Review: Kody West Shows Promise on Debut Album Green

Rating: 8/10

Sometimes, all of us get sick of this whole drama-infused reviewing music thing. There’s pressure from other critics, publicists, readers…it’s hard to find words for each new album, to express your opinion when you know it’s heavily in the minority, to stand out in the crowd of other people trying to stand out doing the same thing, and it’s understandable why lots of blogs have shut down or gone on hiatus recently. And then, out of the blue, you find some new, cool music from a guy like Texas country artist Kody West, and you remember the reason you do this in the first place–to bring people’s attention to artists like this, and maybe help to give them the same cool discovery you just experienced. It’s a joy like no other, and for me, there’s a certain, more specific joy when it comes to the Texas and Red Dirt music running through this region I call home, and when I get to present new and promising artists rising up in this scene. And “promising” is perhaps the best word to describe the debut album by Kody West. Green.

One of the definite high points on this record is the instrumentation. Sonically, it’s much like the early records of the Eli Young Band, flawlessly merging country and rock, traditional and contemporary, into something real and raw, yet still quite new and refreshing, that indefinable thing that seems to be the hallmark of Texas and Red Dirt music. This record sets itself above many other similar-sounding ones, however, in that there is a variety. “The Prayer” is straight-up country, and there’s lots of steel guitar in “IN the Morning” as well. Then there are more rock-leaning songs like the ever-building “Million Miles” and the title track, which except for its heartbroken lyrics about a couple whose love has burned out over the years, is really anything but country. The variety in instrumentation throughout the album speaks to West’s desire to correctly interpret the songs and the lyrics, and for the most part, that works very well. It also serves to provide something for everyone, from those who like the more country side of Texas music, to those who prefer it to sound like hard rock with honest lyrics.

Speaking of lyrics, there are some strong standouts here too. I mentioned “Green,” the title track, and it is probably the most well-written song here, belying Kody’s twenty-one years as it paints a picture of a couple sleeping in different rooms and miserable after many years together–“it takes a long time to forget what caused a lifetime of regret, and the days slip slowly by, we can run, but we can’t hide.” “Ledges” immediately follows this, as West tries to be a better man; his vocals work well with the instrumentation and lyrics to capture the desperation in both these songs. Another place where the instrumentation and lyrics match perfectly is the dark, slightly sinister “Ogygia,”–the imagery in this one is just great, as West sings about the shadow that follows him around and haunts him. It’s a little hard to explain this in writing, as it relies on metaphors and that dark vibe; it’s really just one you should hear because it’s one of the best on the record. “Million Miles” merges the instrumentation and lyrics well also, although after all that building, when the electric guitars finally do come bursting forth, you wish the solo had gone on longer. One of the more country moments that stands out is “Love me Too,” where West wonders if a woman would return his love–there’s more of that excellent steel guitar here as well.

This is a debut, and it does suffer a little from some of the same things that often plague debut records–you can tell Kody West is still trying to develop his sound and stand out in the ever-growing Texas scene. I think he’s well on his way to doing that with the interesting melodies and variety in instrumentation, but tracks like “For the Last Time” and “IN The Morning” feel more like representations of the style, as opposed to representations of West–I actually quite enjoy the former despite this, but I don’t hear the same passion in these that I do on other tracks. The latter also feels a little underdeveloped lyrically, even though it’s got a lot of that aforementioned steel guitar. “Melody,” the album closer, also feels somewhat out of place, as if it were thrown in as an afterthought. Again, I enjoy this song and its message of faith, but it really doesn’t go with the rest of the album or add much to it.

If you were looking for something new and fresh in Texas country, I suggest starting with Kody West. If you like more country rock instrumentation, this album is definitely a great place to start. There are some nice lyrical moments too, especially on the title track, “Ledges,” and “Ogygia.” This record shows a lot of promise for Kody West–it’s not perfect, but it’s a debut, and Kody West is a name you should keep your eye on.

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