Tag Archives: traditional country

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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Review – Margo Price – Weakness EP

Rating: 6/10

I will readily admit that I have not listened to Margo Price’s debut album. Despite the buzz around its release, I just never got to it. Therefore, when this new EP came out, I figured I’d give it a shot since it’s only four songs long to see if Margo Price is my kind of singer.

It turns out that I did not have long to wait to see what I thought of her voice, as it was a bit weak on the title track, which is also the EP’s opener. The lyrics aren’t bad, detailing how sometimes her weakness is stronger than she is, and she is overcome by it. As much as I like the lyrics, though, her voice is what brings the song down for me. It seems like she tries overly hard. I do like the fiddle, however.

The second song, “Just Like Love”, has some darker instrumentation, which I liked. The lyrics talk about how love is not the gentle emotion we all think it is, and that we are all the same, as humans. I think Margo Price’s vocals are a bit better here, and I do like the guitar. I just wish her voice had not been so far back in the mix for this one. Combined with the tempo of the song and the way her vocals were mixed, “Just Like Love” felt a bit sleepy.

“Paper Cowboy” is both my most and least favorite song. The lyrics are great as they discuss a man who is all talk and no action. I like all of the little digs she takes at him, too. Where this song loses me, though, is when the track diverges from singing to total instrumental. Said instrumental goes on for about three minutes or so, and I quickly got bored. Her band is quite talented, but I tend to get less excited about songs outside of the classical genre if there are no words.

Lastly, there is “Good Luck (For Ben Eyestone)”. I really like her voice in the chorus of this song. As she references him being up in the sky and hoping he can see through the stars, I am assuming this song is dedicated to someone who has passed away. She hopes he thinks of her where he is. That is definitely a great sentiment, and I like the lyrical content of the song a lot.

Overall, the lyrics for all of the songs are strong, and Margo Price has a really good backing band. I question some of the production choices, as well as the style of singing used on “Weakness”. While Margo Price does have some songs where her vocals are really well-done, I did not love this EP. I listened to it a few days before I wrote this review, and had to go back and re-listen again in preparation to write this. I was surprised by what the songs say, so that just means that it was rather forgettable. I think if you like female-sung country, you should give this a chance to see if Margo Price’s music is your thing.

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Reflecting On: Ricky Van Shelton – Greatest Hits Plus

Ricky van Shelton is an interesting artist. I will readily admit that I do not know his studio albums that well, which is something that I really need to remedy. Since I still would like to talk about his music, though, I thought I’d talk about a collection of his biggest songs entitled Greatest Hits Plus.

Release Date: August 11, 1992

Style: Traditional Country

People Who Might Like This Album: Those who love the 90s country sound, people who like love songs

Standout Tracks: “Somebody Lied,” “Statue of a Fool,” “From a Jack to a King”

This album starts off with one of my favorite songs by Ricky Van Shelton, “Just As I Am”. It’s a love song all about how he was accepted, just as he was. I love this song, because it’s all about knowing that despite someone’s flaws, they still have good parts to them. I love the steel guitar in this song too.

“Somebody Lied” is my favorite song on the whole album, I think. It’s fantastic in that it tells the story of a man who gets a call from his ex. He says he got over her the day she left him, and someone is making up stories about him crying over her, and talking about her. What would it matter if the rumors were true, would it change how she feels, he wonders. Would she show up to help him heal? It doesn’t matter though, because it wasn’t him, just someone who looks a lot like him and loves someone like her. The most poignant moment in the song for me, because I know it so well, is when he sings about someone saying he showed her picture to a stranger, and he sings “don’t you think I’ve got no pride?” It’s incredible, really.

Because I can’t seem to stop talking about the love songs, I’ll discuss “I’ll Leave This World Loving You”. It’s my second favorite, I think. It’s basically about how a man will leave the world loving a woman, even though she’s leaving him. His voice in this song is really amazing, and when combined with the lyrics, it really creates the feelings he’s trying to convey.

I know that “Statue of a Fool” is a cover, but this is my absolute favorite version of this song. His voice really makes the lyrics of the song shine. The lyrics describe a man who let love get away from him, and now he bitterly regrets it. This is the first version of the song I ever heard, and for me, it’s what I come back to whenever I want to listen to the song. I just love the imagery and how it’s describing the statue and how it resembles him.

Then, there’s a duet with Dolly Parton, “Rockin’ Years”. This is the very first song I heard by Ricky Van Shelton. I love how it details the story of two people pledging to stand by each other throughout their lives. They’ll be there for one another always, and they won’t ever stray from each other. I think these two really shine together, and it’s a great place to start if you have never heard of Ricky Van Shelton.

I also love “From a Jack to a King”. I believe this is another cover, but again, I love this version. The card puns are fantastic, detailing how he is the “king of her heart” because of “lady luck”. The song is more upbeat, and I like the cleverness of the lyrics.

As I’ve said before, I think Ricky Van Shelton is pretty underrated. I love his singing, and he does emotional songs very well. There are some more upbeat songs on this album, I just highlighted my favorites which mostly happen to be slower and more emotional. I think you’re definitely missing out if you don’t at least check out his music and see if he’s your kind of vocalist.

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Album Review: Ags Connolly–Nothin’ Unexpected

Rating: 9/10

IN my pursuit of older 2017 albums, this has to be the coolest discovery. And yeah, I’ll be totally up front with this and say I wasn’t all that interested in listening to this when it came out because the track record of UK country artists is not the greatest, especially with me. Look, I’m not about authenticity in the sense that I couldn’t give two shits what background Midland come from as long as they produce good music, and they have. If you come from Georgia or New York or London, so be it. But equally, if you come from New York, Zephaniah Ohora, don’t inject a Southern accent, just be yourself. That’s what made This Highway such a great listen; it didn’t try to be anything it wasn’t, and that in turn made it authentic. Forget trying to be rural and/or Southern, Zephaniah Ohora knows he’s not, and he’s not going to try and sell you on it. British country artists notoriously won’t do this though–instead of using their unique British perspective as a cool feature, they often try faking Southern accents and using American slang to sound more authentic and just end up sounding fake in the process. Their music is probably often completely sincere, but I can’t seem to take any of them seriously, even if the music is good. So I just never really made time to listen to Ags Connolly until someone told me on Twitter it was the best 2017 album he’d yet heard, and I decided to give Connolly a shot.

“I Hope You’re Unhappy,” the album opener, doesn’t fully convince me on Ags either, as on this track, he does have an exaggerated accent (though not to the degree of many artists who do this), but something about the song keeps me listening. I want to like him because the lyrics are so catchy and because that fiddle is so great. And then “Do You Realize That Now?” comes on and just blows me away. This is easily the best song on the whole thing, and from here on, except for little inflections, you don’t hear an American accent. IN light of that, the opener can be somewhat forgiven as well; these inflections and phrasing seem to be more a result of careful, loving study of country music rather than an ill-advised attempt to imitate the style. The opener is still a bit too exaggerated for me, but there are some moments, like in the opening line of the title track, where there’s no R in “working” at all, wherein Ags Connolly is so openly British that it pretty much makes up for these concerns.

But what really makes this record shine is the way Ags Connolly calls bars “pubs” and “haunts” and frames a whole song around the phrase, “I suppose” in a context where Americans might say, “I think” or “I guess.” It’s these subtleties throughout the album that really convey a sense of authenticity and add a personal, unique quality to the stories portrayed here. They’re still universal enough to relate to people in the States, but the familiarity here will no doubt resonate even more strongly with those from Connolly’s homeland, much like the way songs about Texas stir the hearts of those from that region. Songs like the title track and “Haunts Like This” might remind you of any old place you used to frequent–there are certainly holes in the wall all across America too, or as Ags says, “haunts like this can be found in every town”–but hearing them sung in his way specifically calls to my mind little pubs in Wales and England. That’s cool for me as an American who only got to visit them for a second, so I can only imagine that it’s a pretty awesome and rare thing if you’re a British country fan to be able to relate even more to these songs. So British country artists, take note, and keep singing about your own stuff–it’s a feature, not a flaw.

Though a couple songs lean more toward folk, the majority of this record is very traditional in sound. I mentioned that Ags Connolly has obviously studied country music, and the result is a really entertaining listen. True, you only get a few faster songs, but the variety in instrumentation more than makes up for that. There’s the fiddle in the opener and in the excellent “Neon Jail,” the steel guitar in “I Suppose,” and the piano that pops up in various places throughout the album to cheerfully remind you that it’s an underappreciated instrument in country music and to ask you why so many of Ags Connolly’s stateside counterparts have forsaken it so casually. Its most prominent appearance is in the aforementioned ode to holes in the wall “Haunts Like This,” one of those songs you should just hear. Perhaps most amazingly, there is a supply of accordion on this record second only in 2017 to that on Aaron Watson’s latest album. That accordion pretty much makes the songs “Do You Realize That Now?” and “When the Loner Gets Lonely.” I can honestly say I haven’t heard a record in 2017 with this much focus on and variety in instrumentation; production, yes, but not instrumentation itself. And while we’re on that, let me also congratulate Ags Connolly on being one of the few singer-songwriter types to actually pay attention to his melody as much as his lyrics. I’ve harped on this before, but engaging melodies are just as vital as lyrics, maybe more so, because they keep songs from being boring. And so many of these artists treat melody as some sort of secondary element, focusing too much on words so that often those words are lost when they’re translated into uninteresting musical form.

That brings me to the lyrics themselves, which are mostly really strong, and with a couple standouts sprinkled in. I’ve mentioned “Do You Realize that Now?” enough already, but it excels lyrically too, telling a story somewhere between love and introspection. Actually, love is a theme explored quite a bit here, from the hopeful “I Suppose” to the regretful “Slow Burner.” There’s also a lot of nostalgia, like in the reflective “Fifteen Years” about past love and the more folk-leaning title track about returning to an old pub where he used to play and now misses the waitress he used to know who once worked there and the customers he used to see. Often, it’s not just the lyrics that stand out, however; it’s the combination of them paired with the stirring melodies and thoughtful instrumentation that work together to produce all-around great songs.

If I had to be nitpicky about anything, I suppose–yeah, might as well use Connolly’s word–it would be that it could have benefited from another upbeat track or two like “Neon Jail” and the opener, and if you like more variety in this area, I could see how it might be a little sleepy. Personally, I don’t care about this at all; I found it to be a nice, easy listen, but it’s a criticism I can understand, even if I don’t agree with it in the slightest. The only thing that personally bothers me at all about this entire album is the exaggerated accent on “I Hope You’re Unhappy,” and that that song really doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the album in general. But there’s not much to say against this record, from the stories to the melodies to the instrumentation. Hell, Ags Connolly is a pretty good singer as well, which is a nice change from what is starting to be quite an unfortunately large number of singer-songwriters these days. Most importantly, Ags Connolly doesn’t try to be anything other than himself with this record, and the result renders it inherently unique and cool in the country space. My only regret is that I didn’t discover this sooner.

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