Tag Archives: traditional country

Album Review: Dori Freeman–Letters Never Read

Rating: 8.5/10

Dori Freeman was one of the coolest discoveries of 2016 for me, coming from out of nowhere and making an absolutely killer debut album. Bringing an Appalachian sound to her brand of country, she displayed a unique talent for taking the traditional and timeless and keeping it forward-thinking and fresh. And not just traditional country either, but vintage pop, bluegrass, and folk as well, proving that the best artists aren’t trapped by genre lines but simply write and perform material that suits them and their individual talents.

Read: Album Review: Dori Freeman Impresses With Her Self-Titled Debut

It seems one of Dori’s talents is a knack for simplicity, and another is instinctively knowing what works for her. IN fact, this record literally feels like a continuation of that first project, and that’s not a bad thing at all. It doesn’t feel like leftovers from the first record or seem as if it’s lacking something new to expand Dori’s sound; rather, it’s like a comforting reminder that Dori Freeman is going to be an artist you can count on for quality music. She’s still mixing up the styles, still singing a lot about love, and even has another a cappella tune on this album in the cover of “Ern & Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog,” an old Appalachian song written by her grandfather. So yeah, it’s literally not breaking any new ground, but when something was flawless the first time, why deviate from it?

As mentioned, love is certainly a prevailing theme running through this record. Sometimes, it comes from a place of sheer contentment. “If I Could Make You My own” is sweet and simple in its delivery, and sung by anyone else, the poetic lyrics might come across as sappy and overdone, but Freeman exudes a sincerity that just makes it work to perfection. The same goes for “Turtle Dove.” This one leans more toward that folk/vintage pop style than the former, more traditional country song, and again, it’s delivered with such sincerity that you can’t help but believe the sentiments Dori is expressing.

But more often than not, we’re dealing with the darker sides of love and relationships. “Lovers on the Run” confronts men who make excuses for walking away because they can’t commit, asserting that one day, they will be lonely. This one feels a bit like “Go on Lovin'” from her debut album, but this is told in a more general sense rather than addressed to a specific person. “Just Say it Now” finds Dori confronting the impending end of a relationship and saying that she’s about to be back where she was before it began, “wondering what men are ever looking for.”

And then we have the stunning pair of songs, “That’s all Right” and “Cold Waves.” The former sees Freeman in an abusive relationship with an alcoholic; “you’re passing out, and I’m turning blue.” That natural thing in her voice which sells the sap on “Turtledove” also captures the desperation and heartbreak perfectly here. But despite that, she sings from a place of defiance as she tells the man, “You’ll be the only one whose cross you cannot bear” and looks ahead to when she won’t be with him anymore. She does eventually move on, as conveyed on the album’s crown jewel, “Cold Waves.” This is where the album all comes together, as she’s found a new love, presumably the one from “Turtle Dove,” but the previous abuse still haunts her every day. This is a fantastic song, describing the ongoing pain that she must deal with for the rest of her life as “cold waves” and “blue haze” that surrounds her and makes it hard to push through on some days. Though she is now happy, she will always carry this around with her like a weight, and she prays that her daughter will never know this type of heartache. This has to be one of the best songs written on this subject because it neither paints the abuse as something that permanently debilitated her nor as something from which she can ever completely move on. It’s probably the most realistic song about this that I have ever heard, and as I say, it serves to bring the different parts of the record together as well.

This album is indeed simple, and at only twenty-eight minutes of music, it can seem a little short, especially when four of these ten offerings are covers. But it’s also hard to second guess either the brilliant bluegrass arrangement of “Over There” or the aforementioned “Ern & Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ dog.” These two songs placed in the heart of the record really add that wonderful Appalachian flavor unique to Dori Freeman and so often overlooked in modern country, both mainstream and independent. And let me just add, how many vocalists in the independent scenes can sing a cappella like this? appreciate the vocal quality of Dori freeman, her smooth, undoubtedly country tone, her ability to enunciate clearly, and understand what it takes to pull off stuff like this song because many of her peers simply couldn’t. “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” is definitely the weakest of the covers; it’s a solid song and a good performance from Dori, but it seems slightly out of place on the record. I wouldn’t call it filler by any stretch, but it just doesn’t really go with the rest of the material here.

In short, this is another great album from Dori Freeman, and she continues to make her mark as a rising artist in the independent country/Americana realms. Her commitment to the old styles and especially to the Appalachian sound is refreshing and indeed sets her apart from many of her counterparts. This is a sparse, simple record, yes, but with Dori Freeman, this is all it takes; in fact, less is often more. It’s not strictly country, but because of her diversity with several different styles, there’s really something here for everyone. Definitely recommend checking this one out.

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Album Review: The Whiskey Gentry–Dead Ringer

Rating: 7.5/10

You know what the coolest thing about this little online blogging/music world is? It’s the friends you make through doing this, people that share a common interest and love for the same music. And one of the greatest parts of that has to be all the albums and artists friends and acquaintances of mine have sent me, not in the way of a publicist looking for a review, just as a friend looking to send me something I might like. I’ve got a “never-ending list” of these, especially since getting Twitter, and by all means, keep them coming. Anyway, The Whiskey Gentry here was one of these recommendations sent by a friend who thought I might enjoy them, and yes, they got moved straight to the front of the never-ending list just because that’s a badass name. The Whiskey Gentry? You’ve got my attention. It took awhile with this album, partly because it had to grow on me and mostly because I’ve had some stuff go on in my personal life that put me behind in writing, but I’ve discovered that not only do they have a cool name, The Whiskey Gentry have a pretty good new album here as well.

Actually, the front half of this album is pretty excellent. We’ve got a traveling musician theme running through this record, established with the opener, “Following You,” a reminder that all the other dreamers are looking up to you as you try to make it. I love the line, “the worst day on the road beats spreading paint,” as it seems to be a reminder to them as well as to the listener. The title track is a companion to this, as the lead singer, Lauren Staley, describes getting an English degree and being able to talk Shakespeare but really dreaming of being the “more famous girl on the radio” that people supposedly mistake her for. The lighthearted “Rock n Roll Band” fits this theme as well, and although it’s not quite as memorable as these two, it fits in with the whole atmosphere of this record. “Looking for Trouble” attempts to be a bit more serious, but the instrumentation is still quite lively, and Lauren’s voice, though admittedly weak on quite a few of these songs, shines here on a more subdued track. “Paris” is just, well, let’s use the band’s own description, stupid, but damn, it’s fun, and I just love this. And then if you thought all they did was play upbeat, fun stuff, “Paris” dissolves rather abruptly into “Kern River.” That same fragility in Lauren Staley’s voice works to perfection on this cover, adding a natural vulnerability to the song. This was a brilliant choice, and at track 6, I’ve no complaints with this album at all. Sure, her voice gets drowned out in places, but her personality and the lively, fun instrumentation more than make up for this. OH, and I haven’t said so yet, but this is pretty damn country, despite Apple Music amusingly calling it rock…guess they assumed because of the sheer number of boring, mid-tempo country/Americana releases in 2017, anything this upbeat and cheerful couldn’t possibly be classified as such…but I digress.

The back half does have some problems. I’ll isolate “Drinking Again” on this half because it’s just awesome, and I’ve been singing this for a week and a half. It’s about her going into rehab and pretending to care while she dreams of getting back to drinking. She’s trying to get her drinking under control, but she’s got zero intention of actually giving it up; “it’s time to start drinking again, but first I gotta make it one more day.” “Seven Year Ache” isn’t bad either–in fact, I love the arrangement–but the very frailty I pointed out earlier in her voice doesn’t suit this song, and as a huge fan of the Rosanne Cash original, I wouldn’t have wished Lauren Staley anywhere near this song. “Martha From Marfa” is meant to be stupid just like “Paris,” but it doesn’t pull it off as well, and “Say it Anyway,” although it has a good message, is just a little forgettable. The two slower songs at the end, though placed there to highlight a different side of the group, really don’t add much. The hook of “Is it Snowing Where You Are?” is just weird, and “If You Were an Astronaut” takes incredibly long to get to the point. I’ll give this one the fact that the point, once reached, is good; it’s quite a nice love song once you extract it from all the metaphors. These two, as I say, do show another side to the band and also showcase Lauren’s voice better, but I could have done without both of them. I wouldn’t call any of this especially bad, but we went from excellent to mediocre on the back half, except for “Drinking Again.”

So, yeah, this rating was a bit hard to assign because quite a bit of this album is outstanding, mixed in with some really average, unremarkable stuff. Take off the two final tracks, and we’ve got a ten-track 8.5/10 for sure. But this album is definitely worth hearing because there’s some really good stuff here, and also because it’s just so fun and lighthearted, and we haven’t gotten a lot of that this year. We haven’t gotten too much good true country anyway, let alone true country with this much energy and personality. So thanks for introducing me to The Whiskey Gentry, and now I’m passing them on to you all.

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Album Review: Midland–On the Rocks

Rating: 7/10

Look, Midland are full of shit. I know it, you know it, and Midland sure as hell know it, and they should drop the bullshit about how they’re this bar band from Texas. But they aren’t going to, and we can either spend time hung up on that, or actually focus on the music. I can understand the criticisms, but look, there are a lot of artists I don’t like or respect personally that make fine music. You wonder why I don’t have a picture accompanying this review? Well, think about this: I don’t look at the outfits. Yes, I’ve seen the stories, but it’s easier for me to assess the music on its own merit. Many of you, and understandably so, judge a lot about an album or artist simply by the cover, something I didn’t honestly take into fair account until the John Moreland record. At that point, I saw as many comments on the cover as on the album. I see remarks all the time on the image of the artist, usually derogatory ones on mainstream artists peppered all over SCM threads, just to be blunt. Anyway, at that time, after I became curious at the scrutiny the Moreland cover had received, we started adding captions here for many of our covers, to give blind readers that advantage of being able to discern things from the cover art. Indeed, sometimes these captions have given me insight into my reviews. When you see the Steel Woods cover with a farmer biting into an apple staring into a hurricane and then hear “The Secret,” it’s all the more intense. Liz Rose’s cover adds more to that album too. But here, with Midland, I want you all to take your focus off that for a moment and just think about the quality of the music. I know this is ridiculous, and that you’ve seen plenty of pictures of them and their cover from other outlets, but try to understand the point I’m making here.

So we put this record on, all extraneous bullshit stripped away, and I’ll be damned, it’s traditional. Maybe not the second coming of Haggard, but I’d say 90’s country. NO electronic drumbeats, plenty of steel and fiddle, yeah, you know, those things we used to take for granted in country music. And this came out of Big Machine. I didn’t know it was possible in 2017. I didn’t know there were still people left in Nashville who could play actual instruments for an entire thirteen-song album. And you want to talk about songwriting by committee? Yeah, I’m not a fan of that either, but isn’t it refreshing to see people like Shane McAnally actually lending their names and talents to something resembling country music? You know, the guy that put Sam Hunt on the map?

And that’s not to say this album is going to be the best thing I’ve heard all year, not by any stretch. The best word for it is consistent. It’s solid all the way through, and it took a few listens to sink in. At first, it was pretty unremarkable to me. A couple listens in, this would have probably gotten a 6 from me. There are a couple life-on-the-road songs here like “Electric Rodeo” and especially “Check Cashin’ Country” that just seem fake–no, not because Midland haven’t traveled all over Texas, just because they’re a young band, and they don’t have the experience anyway. These songs just seem clichéd, and actually, that’s the biggest problem with this whole record. The songwriting by committee thing is most evident in this respect because you don’t get personal details from Midland; it’s great that the style is traditional country, but much like Alex Williams’ latest, this often feels like an interpretation of style instead of anything resembling personal expression. It’s a debut, and just as with Alex, I think we can forgive that for Midland. It’s the clichés that held this back for me at first, but equally, the songs are better as a whole than those on the Williams album, so it’s a 7, but a hesitant 7.

I said the songs are better, and it’s true–this album just won me over after awhile. It’s hard to hear “Make a Little” and not smile, both at the country instrumentation and the catchy melody. There’s “More Than a Fever,” which reminds me of something George Strait might have recorded later in his career. There’s “Somewhere on the Wind,” which manages to pull off the road-weariness thing pretty well. Clever details and hooks in songs like “At Least You Cried” and “Out of Sight” elevate these tracks as well. As I say, it’s not groundbreaking material, and there’s not a whole lot I can write about it, but it’s very solid.

I wish Midland had never lied about their background because a lot of people, myself included, would have never given a shit where they came from. But you know what? In a way, I get it too because from the shit storm I’ve seen on Twitter this week, I daresay there are some narrow-minded people who would have never given this band a chance even if they had been honest. It’s that narrow-mindedness that I hate in the independent/Americana/Texas scenes. And if you deny its existence, I present Sam Outlaw, his name and his previous occupation in advertising, as Exhibit A. How many people don’t give him a chance because of either or both of these things? It’s no excuse for Midland’s lies, and I think that’s done more harm than good, but in a way, I understand it. I’m sorry they didn’t let the music speak for itself, but we as music listeners can do just that, and that is how I for one choose to approach Midland. And if you do give this a chance, you’ll find some pretty good country music.

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Album Review: Alex Williams–Better Than Myself

Rating: 7/10

Why are we surprised that Alex Williams got to release this album on Big Machine? Because it’s traditional country? Because he’s virtually unknown? Because Scott Borchetta’s label is also home to Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett?

Well, we shouldn’t be all that surprised. Thrilled, maybe, but not surprised. Scott Borchetta may be a lot of things, but stupid is not one of them. He signed Taylor Swift, an online sensation, with the hope that he could market to teenage girls in country, and you can’t argue with the results even if your opinion of Swift isn’t great. He signed FGL when it became clear bro country would take off. He molded Thomas Rhett to take advantage of the R&B craze taking over the country airwaves. When it became apparent that people were having second thoughts and misgivings about bro country, he signed Maddie & Tae and helped them get a #1 protest song. He signed Midland to take advantage of the cry for more traditional acts, and now he’s done arguably the most predictable, Scott Borchetta-like thing he could do in response to the growth of Americana: sign someone completely unknown with an image to match. He’s not going to go so far as to approach someone like say, Cody Jinks, though–for one, Jinks would never agree, and secondly, that would make too much sense. NO, he’s gone with the completely unknown, out of left field Alex Williams, and then when people won’t listen to Alex because they’re trying to make some sort of hipster statement and boycott the mainstream, it’s going to look like bro country, R&B, and whatever Sam Hunt is doing are truly still the best and most popular options.

So don’t buy into that plan and avoid Alex Williams just because he’s on Big Machine. Give the music a fair shake because if we all turn our backs on principle, he and others like him won’t be given a chance to succeed, and they’ll keep churning out more Thomas Rhetts.

Does that mean this Alex Williams debut is a groundbreaking piece of pure country excellence? No, not by a long stretch, but it’s got a lot of potential, and let’s remember, it’s a debut record. So with all that said, I’d like to talk about Alex Williams and his music now as opposed to the label on the back of this album.

I mentioned potential, and this record is brimming with it. Alex Williams definitely has a great, throwback country sound and style that also adds more contemporary elements. He’s got a great voice to match, and you’ll truly find country all over this record. He sounds sincere, and it doesn’t seem like he’s trying to be anything other than himself.

Unfortunately, Better Than Myself is sort of an ironic title because unlike the assertion on the title track that his songs are better than himself, the songs are not necessarily as good as Alex here. Taken on their own, they’re actually all quite good or at least decent, but they start to run together in a similar fashion to Sara Evans’ latest album because the material is too similar. There’s a lot of drinking and getting stoned on this album, and sometimes it’s like he’s just writing about drinking and such for the sake of it. In other words, it feels more like an interpretation of style, or in this case subject matter, rather than honest reflection by Williams himself. It’s difficult to say because he truly does always sound sincere and engaged, but I think it’s a fault of the fact that this is his debut record, and he’s playing it a little safe. As I say, the songs are mostly fine on their own, but Alex Williams needs to balance them with a little more depth.

But we all used to be more forgiving of artists’ debut efforts, and Alex Williams shouldn’t be an exception. It’s hard not to hear a song like “Few short Miles,” a personal track about Bobby, a mentor of Williams who died of cancer, and not want to root for this guy. This is easily the strongest track here, and you can see that if he’s given a chance, Alex could develop into a really bright spot in the mainstream. And a lot of the drinking songs are fine on their own, the record just needs some variety and perhaps a little more personality. You hear cool lyrics sprinkled throughout the record, like in “Strange Days” and “Old Tattoo.” “Last Cross” is also a fine song, closing the album with some reflection about the hard living mentioned here as he prepares to meet a lover at “the last cross left to bear.”

Ultimately, this record’s not going to change your life or anything, and it’s definitely got some tired and even cliché themes, but it’s also quite a promising debut from Alex Williams. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I enjoy that. The material is too similar, and there’s not quite enough Alex pouring out of it, but the lighthearted attitude with which this album is delivered is actually really refreshing to me. It may also help that it’s a fun, uncomplicated album that I listened to in the midst of all the turmoil going on in our world right now. I wasn’t really looking for depth when i heard this, so I probably heard it at the right time, and that may admittedly account for why I seem to be enjoying this a little more than some others talking about this album.

I don’t know if we’d all be talking about it if it hadn’t come from Big Machine, though, and that’s both a good and a bad thing. It’s good for the obvious reason that it’s pretty incredible to see an album like this get released on a major label, even premiered on NPR and such, but it’s bad because too many people are prejudging it. It’s not going to blow you away, but this is a guy we should all be able to get behind. There’s a lot of room for development, but these days, an artist doesn’t always get that time to develop, and I fear that this will be largely ignored due to people’s refusal to listen to it. Recognize this for what it is, a positive step for the mainstream.

I hope Alex Williams gets to record more albums, and that next time, I won’t be giving him such a mixed review. I hope he can develop his sound and become one of the shining lights in mainstream country, and I’m sorry he doesn’t quite do that with this record. But it’s his debut, and we all have to start somewhere. The flaws are right up front on this album, but the potential is too, and it’s up to us to make sure he gets enough time to truly live up to that potential. Not the album that’s going to “save” country music, but it’s a decent, fun record. Give it a chance.

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Reflecting On: Jason Boland & The Stragglers – Rancho Alto

Jason Boland & the Stragglers is one of the best bands making country today. Their instrumentation, lyrics, and vocals all combine to make the perfect package. When thinking of which album I wanted to discuss by this band, I debated between this one and their 2013 release, Dark and Dirty Mile. I settled for Rancho Alto because it has the first song I ever heard by the band on it, and it’s the first album I ever bought from these guys.

Release Date: 2011

Style: Traditional Country

People Who Might Like This Album: Those who love their country music with great singing, lyrics, and instrumentation, Fans of the Turnpike Troubadours, Fans of anything authentically country

Standout Tracks: “Down Here in the Hole,” “False Accuser’s Lament,” “Woody’s Road”

The album starts off with one of the band’s best songs, “Down Here In the Hole”. It details the day of a miner who gets trapped in the mine. The line that gets to me the most is “The sun never shines down here in the hole”. The man in the song is mining because he needs the money. The track ends when he gets trapped in the mine, and nobody knows if he fell or was shoved. The instrumentation is stellar with some great fiddle play. It’s a faster song, too, which you wouldn’t expect with this subject matter.

Another favorite from this album is “False Accuser’s Lament”. The song tells the story of a man who lied about seeing someone commit a murder. The person telling the story doesn’t know if the man he accused actually did it, but he wanted the money for a new plow and to keep his land. The banker offered to pay the man in the song, along with some others, to say that they’d seen a specific man shoot someone. This is because the banker’s wife had cheated on him with the person the banker wanted imprisoned for committing murder. In the end, the false accuser loses everything to the banker due to bad weather destroying his crops. . This is yet another story song that I think is fabulous. The steel guitar and fiddle make this song stand out instrumentally, too. This track is just so layered, because you have the jealous banker bribing poor people to say the man his wife cheated on him with had committed murder. You also have the main character in the song detailing his remorse and how he keeps seeing the accused man be killed. It’s just fantastic.

“Woody’s Road” is the first song I ever heard by Jason Boland & the Stragglers. Upon doing some research, I discovered that the song was actually written by Bob Childers, but I have not heard any other version. I love this song. It’s a tribute to Woody Guthrie. The man in the song tries to follow Woody Guthrie’s example of being a friend to everyone, rambling, and doing his best to help everyone. I confess, I do not know all that much about Woody Guthrie, but this song certainly has always made me curious about him. Adding to the lyrics is the stellar instrumental talent of the Stragglers, and the great melody, and I was hooked.

The rest of the album is good, but these three songs are my favorites. “Woody’s Road” certainly led me to discovering the Stragglers, and I have not regretted it since. They make some of the finest country music being produced today, and I hope everyone reading this will check them out.

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