Gone Country: Hear Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s new duet ‘Speak to a Girl’

 

The wait is over, country fans. The new duet from Faith Hill and Tim McGraw is now available to stream.

NEW YORK, NY – FEBRUARY 28: Tim McGraw and Faith Hill attend Lionsgate Hosts the World Premiere of “The Shack” at the Museum of Modern Art on February 28, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

“Speak To A Girl,” the first single from McGraw and Hill’s recently announced duet album, moved to country radio and Spotify at 4 p.m. Thursday.

The song, abut the proper way men should speak to women, seems to be a commentary on the state of modern country music’s “Hey, girl” fascination. It’s also a blend of the two country star’s stylings as of late; McGraw’s quiet, “Damn Country Music” laid-back acoustic sound meshes well with Hill’s pop sensibilities and soaring vocals in the back half of the song.

“When songs can be timely and really move you and really have a message, then you know that you have something special,” McGraw told Nash Country Daily. I think that this song really is a special song. It’s special for us, having three daughters—me being a husband and Faith being a mom of three daughters and growing up in a world of all women like I did, I think it’s just a really special song.”

Hill added in the same interview: “It kind of gives you a landscape of how to speak to a girl, and what the important parts of language are when it comes to communicating with one another—with a woman. It’s about truth and honesty and respect. The biggest one being respect.”

Related: Texas Tech study says women in country songs are more objectified than ever

“Speak To a Girl” was written by Shy Carter, Dave Gibson and Joe Sparger and co-produced by Byron Gallimore, along with McGraw and Hill. Thursday is the song’s release date, but the couple plans to perform it at the ACM Awards on April 2.

Earlier this year, the couple wrote and recorded a new duet for the Christian film “The Shack” called “Keep your Eyes on Me” that now sounds like a precursor to the sound they have now.
The couple will also once again go on tour with one another in April. Their “Soul2Soul World Tour” kicks off in New Orleans April 7, and they both just left their respective labels to sign record deals with Arista Nashville in February. McGraw was previously at Big Machine Records (after leaving a whole career at Curb before that), while Hill was at Warner Bros. The contracts are separate, and include separate solo albums as well as the duet album, but this decision by one of the best-selling duos of modern country was clearly good business.
McGraw is currently in the middle of a late-career renaissance thanks to “Humble and Kind,” “How I’ll Always Be” and “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” (which was also a duet with Hill). Hill’s last hit was “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” and hasn’t had a solo hit since 2005’s “Sunshine and Summertime.
The decision to tour together, sign on the same record label and release a whole duet album together is great for McGraw’s and Hill’s fans, but it’s also a sad indication of the state of the country music business for women. Faith Hill has sold more than 40 million records worldwide in her career, and she’s also scored five Grammy wins and earned 18 Top 10 songs on the Billboard country charts (eight of which went to No. 1). But the only way she can get any sort of press these days is by touring with her husband (or by being interviewed by Fox News about “aging gracefully.”)
But maybe they wanted it that way; McGraw and Hill have three daughters, and the youngest one is almost done with high school, so maybe they didn’t want to have both parents trying to tour and release albums while raising three kids.
Either way, it’s sad that Hill’s solo work has gotten less attention over the years.
At any rate, “Speak To A Girl” is wholesome country that actually has something to say in a time when the genre desperately needs it. Take a listen on Spotify below.

Gone Country aims to thoughtfully explore the country music genre and where it’s headed, with a focus on national trends and buzzworthy news of the week. Questions, comments, suggestions? Let me know on Twitter @jakeharris4 or through email at jharris@statesman.com.

Gone Country: Fort Worth blue collar band Grady Spencer & the Work return to Saxon Pub

 

Grady Spencer & the Work are about to play the Saxon Pub for the fourth time in less than a year. For an Austin band, that’s pretty routine. But for a Fort Worth band, it’s pretty unusual. And for this four-piece from Cowtown, that first gig at Saxon almost didn’t happen.

Grady Spencer, of Grady Spencer & the Work. (Photo submitted.)

“I think one of the bands had a cancellation for the show that we did, and we got like a week’s notice to come down and play,” Spencer said. “But Saxon is such a legendary place that we had to jump out at it.”

That first show was almost empty, despite some family and friends in the audience. But by this February, through word of mouth and some great Spotify streaming numbers, the bar was packed when the group came back to town. Tonight, they’ll play again at Saxon at 10:30.

The group, comprised of lead singer and guitarist Spencer, bassist Johnny Hatcher, guitarist Trevor Powell and drummer Blake Sager, specializes in a Texas sound that’s rooted in Americana, blues and dirty roots rock. Texicana, if you will.* Their name comes from their own blue collar backgrounds; Spencer works as an HVAC construction worker for TDIndustries in Fort Worth, Hatcher repairs espresso machines and Powell works at a logistics company.

“The music we make has a kind of rough, dirty, gritty vibe, which fits,” Spencer said.

“As a kid, I wanted to be a rock star, but now as an adult, I’m like, ‘Yeah, just being able to pay my bills would be nice,'” Hatcher said. “People expect us to be like, rock stars, and we tell them we still have day jobs and they’re like,’Whaaat?!'”

In their home city, they’re pretty close to becoming rock stars. A re-cut version of “Things To Do,” a song off of their 2013 album “Sleep,” was recently commissioned by Visit Fort Worth to be the soundtrack to a tourist video for the city. Spencer says the song, which features the line “Bless my soul and take me back to Fort Worth” in the chorus, was never meant to be a single.

“I always tell people I thought that song was going to be a filler, like I was just trying to get the album count to double digits, and I guess we just really underestimated how stoked people get to hear their city in a song,” Spencer said.

As of this writing, the song has been streamed on Spotify more than 800,000 times.

The group got started when Spencer moved to Fort Worth about 6 years ago and quickly met Sager and Powell through the at Paradox Church in downtown Fort Worth. He had started doing some solo work here and some open mic stuff there, but was looking for a band.

“So I played with those guys at church a few times, called em up, and then it just grew from there. Johnny was a friend who we met through another band, and he just kind of jumped in and fit right in.”

Since then, the band has released two albums, “Sleep” and 2016’s “The Line Between.” The Work’s songwriting deals with the illusion of fame and money (“Things to Do”) the importance of prioritizing the right relationships in life (“Winning Wrong”) and even a fable about bringing a knife to a gunfight (“Guns and Knives”). There’s also an undercurrent of the group’s shared church background that’s right under the surface in songs like “Anatomy of a Sinner” and in the album title “The Line Between.”

“My inspiration for songwriting is my life, my relationship with my wife, things like that. But [“The Line Between”]’s album title is kind of a reference to Jesus, but I wanted to do it where it was just right under the surface to where you don’t have to dig that deep to see that theme, but it’s not so in your face that we couldn’t play it to a room full of drunk people,” Spencer said. “So hopefully the lyrics will resonate with people on a different level.”

Powell adds that their routine of playing in a church Sunday after playing in places like Saxon on a Saturday leads to some fun interactions.

“What’s cool is you tell them that you have to be at church the next morning after playing Saturday night, and that opens up some conversations that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.”

The group is putting together a third album, which Spencer said he is “maybe halfway done with” writing. But for now, they’re busy touring all over Texas putting on a great live show.

“The underlying goal for all of us is to do music for a living, whether that’s touring or recording or something like that, where we’re not going on construction sites or fiddling with Starbucks machines every day,” Spencer said.

No matter what happens, you can count on this band to put in the work, on and off stage.

Grady Spencer & the Work take the stage at the Saxon Pub tonight at 10:30. Show is 21 and over and tickets for $10 can be bought online or at the door.

*This term was originally coined by my buddy Drew Curd, who first introduced me to Grady Spencer & the Work’s music.

Gone Country aims to thoughtfully explore the country music genre and where it’s headed, with a focus on national trends and buzzworthy news of the week.

Questions, comments, suggestions? Let me know on Twitter @jakeharris4 or through email at jharris@statesman.com.

Happy birthday, Texas: Here’s 182 songs about the state

Hopefully it’s not too late to wish the state of Texas a happy birthday! 182 years old is nothing to scoff at, and that’s why we’ve decided to put together a playlist of songs about the Lone Star State.

happybdaytex

That’s right, 182 songs. That’s 11.5 hours of music, so you’ll be able to listen to this playlist and celebrate well into the waning hours of the early morning. It’s got the standards, like “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” “T for Texas” and “All My Exes Live in Texas.” The list skews country, because country artists love to sing about Texas (especially Pat Green.)

More: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, TEXAS: Here’s 182 things we love about you

There’s also some rock, hip-hop, post-rock and other genres toward the end of the playlist. How else was I supposed to hit 181 songs? Plus, don’t tell me you don’t immediately think of high school football when you hear “Your Hand in Mine” by Explosions in the Sky.

No matter what your musical taste, there’s something for everyone. So sit back, crack open a Shiner or a Lone Star, wave the Texas flag with pride, and celebrate 182 years of Texas. Cheers.

Gone Country aims to thoughtfully explore the country music genre and where it’s headed, with a focus on national trends and buzzworthy news of the week. For info about album releases and concerts, check out this week’s Country Music Roundup.

Questions, comments, suggestions? Let me know on Twitter @jakeharris4 or through email at jharris@statesman.com.

Gone Country: The most anticipated albums of 2017

Country fans had a lot to celebrate last year, but 2017 is shaping up to be just as good, if not better than 2016. Artists like Maren Morris and Eric Church are headed back on tour, and old legends like Marty Stuart and Reba McEntire are recording new material, and young up-and-comers like Luke Combs are poised to make 2017 their breakout year.

While there’s been a fair amount of speculation on who’s headed back into the studio, there are still a lot of confirmed release dates that are already on my calendar. Here’s a list of the albums I’m most excited for, divided up by month:

February

Alison Krauss, “Windy City,” Feb. 17

Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss perform at the Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic at Austin360 Amphitheater on July 4, 2016. Photo by Erika Rich for American-Statesman
Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss perform at the Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic at Austin360 Amphitheater on July 4, 2016. Photo by Erika Rich for American-Statesman
Krauss’ first album in 17 years is a collection of bluegrass and country rarities and standards by artists like Brenda Lee, Willie Nelson, Bill Monroe and the Osborne Brothers. Her take on Brenda Lee’s “Losing You” is heartbreaking and beautiful, replacing the trumpets on the original with lilting steel guitars.

Rhiannon Giddens, “Freedom Road,” Feb. 24

Rhiannon Giddens plays ACL Fest 2015. Suzanne Cordeiro for AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Rhiannon Giddens plays ACL Fest 2015. Suzanne Cordeiro for AMERICAN-STATESMAN
2016 saw Giddens’ profile rise after she became that year’s recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass and also sang the backup vocals on Eric Church’s election-year antidote “Kill a Word.” Oh, and she also played a killer set at her “Austin City Limits” taping. The Americana/roots artist is slated for a Feb. 24 release of “Freedom Road,” only her second album. The 12-track LP will feature nine originals plus a Staples Singers cover (the title track).

Aaron Watson, “Vaquero,” Feb. 24

Photo from Flickr user Amy Claxton.
Photo from Flickr user Amy Claxton.
Watson’s 2015 album “The Underdog” shot him to a wider audience in 2016 after it became the first album from a male artist to ever reach Number One on the country charts without a record deal. While the title may belie the fact, “The Underdog” was Watson’s 12th album. His next, “Vaquero,” seems to stick to his formula of traditionalist country with a little bit of modern flair.

March

Sunny Sweeney, “Trophy,” March 10

Sunny Sweeney.  JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Sunny Sweeney. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Texas-born Sunny Sweeney’s latest album features four songs penned with Lori McKenna and guest spots from Trisha Yearwood, Ray Benson and Jack Ingram.

April

Willie Nelson, “God’s Problem Child”

Willie Nelson tapes a piece in the Pedernales Recording Studio for the US premiere of the Irish music series Other Voices on October 3, 2016. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman
Willie Nelson tapes a piece in the Pedernales Recording Studio for the US premiere of the Irish music series Other Voices on October 3, 2016. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman
Nelson’s latest album will feature “Delete and Fast-Forward,” his take on the 2016 election, as well as a song co-written by Jamey Johnson. The Red-Headed stranger’s age hasn’t slowed his creative output, and I’m hoping Austin’s favorite hippie finds a way to live forever.

May

Zac Brown Band, “Welcome Home,” May 12

The Zac Brown Band closes out the concert season at Circuit of the Americas. Photo courtesy Shore Fire Media
The Zac Brown Band closes out the concert season at Circuit of the Americas. Photo courtesy Shore Fire Media
After taking a detour with “Jekyll + Hyde” and Brown’s ill-advised side-project Sir Roosevelt, ZBB is going back to their stripped-down style, complete with a new tour to go along with it. The “Welcome Home” tour will kick off in Atlanta on the same day as the album’s release.

“The album will be straight back to our roots, ‘Foundation’-style,'” Brown told Rolling Stone Country.

To Be Announced

The following artists have all promised upcoming albums this year, but haven’t set dates yet:

Jason Isbell

Isbell tweeted on New Year’s eve that he was hard at work on a follow-up to “Something More Than Free.” Early reports say Isbell will again put Dave Cobb at the controls, and that the album has started tracking this month.

Marty Stuart, Early 2017

Stuart’s followup to 2014’s “Saturday Night/Sunday Morning” will focus on California, where the bulk of the album was recorded.

Shania Twain

Twain’s last album was the 2002 double-album “Up!” In the 15 years since, she’s performed a residency in Vegas, gotten divorced and written a book. Expect some personal material from the Canadian superstar.

Chris Stapleton

Stapleton’s sophomore album should be coming soon, and he’s already been trying some of the songs out on tour. It’s rumored to be coming out in the spring; a single should be released in the next couple of months.

Margo Price

One of the biggest travesties in country music last year was the lack of major awards recognition given to “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” Price’s debut. She tweeted on Dec. 21 that her new album was in the works. She told Rolling Stone Country in December that she’s “been writing a lot, because there is so much going on in the world and so much going on with me internally.” Her NPR Tiny Desk concert from November might point to some of the album’s subject matter.

Corey Smith

The Jefferson, Ga. wordsmith is famous in the southeast for three things: his rigorous touring schedule, his poignant songwriting and his N.W.A.-by-way-of-the-Mason-Dixon-Line anti-police screeds “F The Po-Po” and “Chattanooga.” He tweeted in November that he has new songs and is going out on tour again. In the meantime, his latest, “While The Gettin’ Is Good,” is available now.

Straight-Up Speculation

None of these have been formally announced, but I’m holding out for these dark horses for 2017:

A Jamey Johnson album

Johnson hasn’t released a full-length solo project full of original songs since 2010’s “The Guitar Song.” He’s been content to write songs for others for the most part, and those are all fantastic, but hearing other people sing his words just makes me want a new album even more.

A Cody Jinks album

The Fort Worth native just today announced a new song, presumably a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” That might mean he’s following up the stellar “I’m Not The Devil” with something more experimental. Or it could just be a one-off.

A Josh Turner album

Turner’s been in the middle of album woes (presumably brought on by his record label) for five years. His last full-length album, “Punching Bag,” came out in 2012. “Lay Low” and “Hometown Girl” have been the only singles he’s released since then, and he’s told news outlets as recently as 2015 that he has an album ready to go, but it’s his record album that’s holding him back. Hopefully this will be the year his deep-based voice gets released from record label purgatory.

A Gary Allan album

Allan is in the same boat as Turner. “Set You Free,” Allan’s last album, was released in 2013 and he’s only put out some lackluster songs since then. He was supposed to have a new album out in 2015. Maybe this year will be his year.

A Dixie Chicks album (live or studio)

You don’t go on a world tour and NOT release a DVD, or an album, or something. Come on.

Gone Country aims to thoughtfully explore the country music genre and where it’s headed, with a focus on national trends and buzzworthy news of the week. For info about album releases and concerts, check out this week’s Country Music Roundup.

Questions, comments, suggestions? Let me know on Twitter @jakeharris4 or through email at jharris@statesman.com.

Gone Country: The 10 best albums of 2016

Man, 2016 was a crazy year. But it did bring us some good country music, and it may have taken me until the day before New Year’s Eve to make my list, but here it is. Some albums have stayed from the list I made in the middle of the year; others have been moved off the list. But it was hard to narrow down to just 10 albums, so if you want to let me know what I missed, feel free to comment. Enjoy, and may we remember 2016 as “The Year Where Sturgill Covered Nirvana.

10. “The Weight of These Wings,” Miranda Lambert 

Miranda Lambert performs onstage during the 2016 iHeartCountry Festival held at The Frank Erwin Center on April 30, 2016 in Austin, Texas. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman
Miranda Lambert performs onstage during the 2016 iHeartCountry Festival held at The Frank Erwin Center on April 30, 2016 in Austin, Texas. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman

Miranda Lambert’s double-album stays true to her personality while expanding her sonic palate. It would’ve been easy for Lambert to lean further into her “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” persona. But this songbook finds Lambert tapping into the weight of every emotion, not just grief and loss.

9. “Big Day in a Small Town,” Brandy Clark

In this April 19, 2015, file photo, country singer Brandy Clark arrives at the 50th annual Academy of Country Music Awards in Arlington, Texas. Clark has also penned hits for Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves. (Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP, File)
In this April 19, 2015, file photo, country singer Brandy Clark arrives at the 50th annual Academy of Country Music Awards in Arlington, Texas. Clark has also penned hits for Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves. (Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP, File)

Her second album is even better than her first. While “12 Stories” was an album full of ballads about normal, everyday people, “Big Day” imagines all those people in one town, and showcases more of Clark’s songwriting chops. The production is bigger and the scope is larger on “Big Day,” but Clark’s ability to tap into the milieu of southern life is second to none.

8. “The Bird and the Rifle,” Lori McKenna

From Flickr user Thom C. Used with Creative Commons license.
From Flickr user Thom C. Used with Creative Commons license.

The “Humble and Kind” and “Girl Crush” songwriter is back with an album full of metaphors and personifications. And every song is a masterpiece.

7. “Midnight Motel,” Jack Ingram

Jack Ingram at Waterloo Records on Friday, Aug. 26, 2016. Photo by Peter Blackstock
Jack Ingram at Waterloo Records on Friday, Aug. 26, 2016. Photo by Peter Blackstock

Ingram told me while promoting this album that “Midnight Motel” was the embodiment of his new mantra: “Don’t write a song that you won’t play for your heroes.” He follows through on his promise here. “Midnight Motel,” his first album since splitting with big Machine seven years ago, is messy, unfiltered and wholly his.

6. “Lovers and Leavers,” Hayes Carll

Hayes Carll taping "Austin City Limits" on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016, at ACL Live. Courtesy KLRU-TV/Austin City Limits; photo by Scott Newton
Hayes Carll taping “Austin City Limits” on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016, at ACL Live. Courtesy KLRU-TV/Austin City Limits; photo by Scott Newton

The Hayes Carll singing on “Lovers and Leavers” is not the same Hayes Carll that penned “She Left Me For Jesus” or “KMAG YOYO.” This is a more grown-up, recently divorced Hayes Carll. And the songs show.

Some fans didn’t like the departure from his rough and rowdy ways, bur the songwriting on “Lovers and Leavers” is at least on par with, maybe better than, “Trouble in Mind” or “KMAG YOYO.” The album reveals a man wrestling with love in all its shapes and forms- parental, platonic, romantic and brotherly. Lots of country artists have sung about fatherhood and divorce. Cuts like “The Magic Kid” and “My Friends” get to the heart of what it’s like to grow into fatherhood in a way that only Carll could say.

5. “I’m Not the Devil,” Cody Jinks

From Flickr user Brandon Florkey. Used with Creative Commons license.
From Flickr user Brandon Florkey. Used with Creative Commons license.

Jinks used to be the lead guitarist in a Fort Worth thrash metal band.”I’m Not the Devil,” which has enough apocalyptic metaphors to win over Jinks’ older fans but is also firmly rooted in country instrumentation, fuses the attitude of metal with the sound of outlaw country. And it’s perfect.

4. “Rockingham,” BJ Barham

American Aquarium performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Friday October 2, 2015.  JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
American Aquarium performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Friday October 2, 2015. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The American Aquarium frontman embarks on a solo journey here, written immediately after the November 2015 Paris attacks. The album deals with the notion of home and how that home has impacted Barham for better or worse. It’s a heartbreaking ode to small-town life.

3. “American Band,” Drive-By Truckers

Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers plays Hole in the Wall. Photo by Andy Tennille
Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers plays Hole in the Wall. Photo by Andy Tennille

The Drive-By Truckers have aways been political. But they’ve never been as political as they are on “American Band,” which is going to be remembered as a forerunner to much of the protest music that’s going to come out of the Trump administration.

2. “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” Sturgill Simpson

American Country Music Artist Sturgill Simpson performs on Night One at ACL-Live at The Moody Theater in Austin, Texas on May 5, 2016 - Photo Credit: Scott Moore/For American-Statesman
American Country Music Artist Sturgill Simpson performs on Night One at ACL-Live at The Moody Theater in Austin, Texas on May 5, 2016 – Photo Credit: Scott Moore/For American-Statesman

“Sailor’s Guide” is Simpson’s first album without Dave Cobb at the controls, and that’s because this one is intensely personal. Just a scant nine songs and 43 minutes long, “Sailor’s Guide” packs a punch of fatherly advice, peppered with sea sounds, grunge-rock, horns from the Dap-Kings and a slow, dream-like Nirvana cover. This concept album is going to be remembered as one of the biggest highlights of Simpson’s career, but Simpson could care less about his legacy, which makes it better. Call it country, call it rock, call it whatever you want, but just know it’s one of the most honest country albums of the year.

1.“Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” Margo Price

Margo Price taping "Austin City Limits" on Monday, Oct. 3, 2016. Courtesy of KLRU-TV/Austin City Limits. Photo by Scott Newton
Margo Price taping “Austin City Limits” on Monday, Oct. 3, 2016. Courtesy of KLRU-TV/Austin City Limits. Photo by Scott Newton

This was No. 2 on my mid-year list, and I went back and forth between this and “Sailor’s Guide” for a while. After repeated listens, this one grew on me more and more, and it’s a shame this album wasn’t rewarded at all from the Grammys or the CMAs.

Price made waves on “Saturday Night Live” this year when she performed during the Russel Crowe episode a month after her debut album arrived on the Billboard country charts at No. 10, selling 4,000 copies in its first week. That’s a modest debut, but for an independent female solo artist who had no previous chart history, it was a first-of-its-kind moment.

“Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” while not the answer to all of country music’s current woes, is a stellar debut. “Hurtin’ On the Bottle” is as good a drinking song as you’ll find anywhere, and “Weekender” showcases Price’s wry sense of humor among the melancholy moments of life. May it be remembered as a classic album from 2016.

Honorary Mentions (in no particular order):

“Hero,” Maren Morris; “Like An Arrow,” Blackberry Smoke; “Gotta Be Me,” Cody Johnson; “Full Circle,” Loretta Lynn; “Shine On Rainy Day,” Brent Cobb; “Southern Family,” prod. by Dave Cobb; “Nothing Shines Like Neon,” Randy Rogers Band; “Then Sings My Soul,” Wade Bowen; “California Sunshine,” Jon Pardi; “Country Songs,” Karen Jonas

Gone Country aims to thoughtfully explore the country music genre and where it’s headed, with a focus on national trends and buzzworthy news of the week. For info about album releases and concerts, check out this week’s Country Music Roundup.

Questions, comments, suggestions? Let me know on Twitter @jakeharris4 or through email at jharris@statesman.com.

Gone Country: 10 songs to add to your country holiday playlist

Christmas is three days away, and if you haven’t heard, there are  quite a few holiday country music albums out there for you to play during your family gatherings this year.

via GIPHY

But if you’re looking for something other than the day’s latest smattering of Christmas songs, here’s a playlist with a little more variety. There’s something here for everyone, whether you’re a pop-country fan, a Johnny Cash devotee or an Alabama acolyte.

Happy Holidays.

10. “Merry Christmas from the Family,” Robert Earl Keen

Robert Earl Keen’s portrait of a Texas get-together perfectly captures what it’s like to go home to relatives you may only see once a year. This is the soundtrack for that moment in every Christmas weekend where everyone’s had a little bit too much spiked eggnog and even though you may be fed up with some of your family’s antics, you love them anyway.

9. “Oklahoma Christmas,” Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis

If you find yourself crossing state lines every year to visit those in-laws that are more religious than you are, Kelly and Bruce have a funny story for you.

8. “Grateful for Christmas,” Hayes Carll

Carll’s tale of a family’s trip home to Waco, or Houston, or whatever Texas town they’re celebrating this year, was included on “KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories).” The song is more of a spoken word piece about what a typical family gathering is like in the Carll household:  burnt food, great company, card games and thankfulness all around. It’s a heartwarming original.

7. “A Willie Nice Christmas,” Kacey Musgraves

One of the more lighthearted moments on Musgraves’ oft-melancholy “Very Kacey Christmas,” this duet with Willie Nelson takes a kitsch premise and turns it into a catchy singalong.

6. “Just Me and These Ponies (For Christmas This Year)”, Corb Lund

Corb Lund’s sad take on the holidays is a story about a lonely rancher who probably won’t be getting any holiday visitors, but goes to the trouble of putting up decorations and wrapping presents just in case.

5. “The Christmas Song,” Jamey Johnson

A part of the only original album of music Johnson has released since “The Guitar Song,” this new version of an old standard sounds like a slow Texas waltz with some harmonica thrown in. The entire rest of his “The Christmas Song” album is one of the few great modern Christmas collections, as well, though it’s hard to find online. Your best bet is iTunes.

4. “Christmas Memories,” Alabama

This album was (and still is) a mainstay in my family’s house every Christmas. My earliest memories of it involve 5-year-old Jake putting the CD into our giant 60-disc changer along with all of the other Christmas music we had so we could listen to them while we decorated the tree. Our entertainment center at the time was a behemoth of 70s wood-paneling, and the speakers were as tall as me. I felt like I was hearing some relic of days gone by when I heard it for the first time, and when I later understood what “nostalgia” was, I pinpointed the exact emotion I felt when hearing this song for the first time.

Christmas is a time for joy and happiness, yes, but the season is also sad for so many people, and no country song fully realizes this sentiment more than Alabama’s “Christmas Memories.” Nostalgia is rooted in sadness, and Christmas is when many people get the most wistful about years gone by.

3. “O Holy Night,” Carrie Underwood

Carrie Underwood sounds nothing short of divine in her passionate cover of this hymn. I can’t think of anyone alive in country music right now better suited for this song.

2. “The Christmas Guest,” Johnny Cash

Before “Footprints in the Sand” and other folksy religious aphorisms became destined for Pinterest boards and Facebook memes with Minions on them, the source material actually inspired some pretty great pieces of art. This Johnny Cash cover of a Grandpa Jones adaptation of a folk story is a spoken-word riff on Jesus’ “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me” speech in the Bible. It’s a nice reminder to consider those less fortunate all year-round.

1. “Pretty Paper,” Willie Nelson

The essential country Christmas ballad.

Gone Country aims to thoughtfully explore the country music genre and where it’s headed, with a focus on national trends and buzzworthy news of the week. For info about album releases and concerts, check out this week’s Country Music Roundup.

Questions, comments, suggestions? Let me know on Twitter @jakeharris4 or through email at jharris@statesman.com.

Country Music Roundup: Randy Rogers to play pre-Trump inauguration party

This Week’s News

Courtesy photo Randy Rogers (center)
Courtesy photo of Randy Rogers.

The Randy Rogers Band are gearing up for another year of sold-out touring (and are already working on another album), but first, Randy Rogers will perform a solo show at the Black Tie and Boots 2017 Presidential Inaugural Ball in Oxon Hill, Md. on Jan. 19.

The bipartisan event was first put on by the Texas State Society of Washington, D.C. in 1953 as a pre-inaugural cocktail party for President Dwight Eisenhower. Since its inception, the event has played host to Texas entertainers like Asleep at the Wheel, Clint Black, Jamie Foxx, Jack Ingram, Robert Earl Keen and Willie Nelson.

Rogers was booked at the event prior to the election.

In other inauguration news, it’s being reported that Kid Rock and Ted Nugent are so far the only two entertainers willing to perform at President-Elect Donald Trump’s actual inauguration on Jan. 20, although acts like Kanye West, Garth Brooks and Lee Greenwood have been considered. (Sources have said that Brooks will not play the inauguration.)

This Week’s Best New Song

“Tractor” is the type of song Luke Bryan should have made more of on his latest “Farm Tour” EP. Like Bryan, Granger Smith is also the son of a farmer, and that upbringing has clearly influenced his creative output. When his father died and his son was born at the same time he was recording his album “Remington,” Smith penned this ode to his father’s life and occupation.

““I’ve been working, and my brothers have been working for so long on music and traveling and doing our thing, and Dad was always my biggest fan,” Smith told Taste of Country. “He was always back home in Texas, on his ranch, doing his own thing …  he was on his tractor every day, all day long.” The song is a real representation of rural life. It’s a far cry from stuff like Bryan’s “Love Me in a Field.”

This Week’s Worst New Song

Call it an excuse to make a “Christmas spirits” pun. Call it an excuse to make a fun Christmas song with your buddies. Call it an excuse to make a music video dressed in fun, festive ugly Christmas sweaters. But don’t, in a year with so many other great country holiday offerings, call this a good Christmas song.

I love a good whiskey pun as much as the next Jack Daniels consumer, but lines like “We gettin’ into the Christmas spirits / Lightin’ it up like a Christmas tree / If I can’t drive then I’m gonna reindeer it / If the ones in the front yard will fly for me / Get your cups up everybody let’s Christmas cheers it” make me want to drink to forget. Maybe that makes me a Scrooge. Bah, humbug.

This Week’s Best Country Show in Austin

Friday: Legends & Legacies Holiday Show at Continental Club. An annual event that plays off the city’s many musical family trees, this year’s version is specially designated as a benefit for participant Savannah Welch, who lost a leg in an accident last month. Her father Kevin and brother Dustin will join in, along with James and Curtis McMurtry, Jon Dee and William Harries Graham, Jimmie Dale and Colin Gilmore, Terry and Bale Allen, Warren and Marshall Hood, Charlie Sexton and more. $32. 9 p.m. 1315 S. Congress Ave. continentalclub.com. — Peter Blackstock

This is the Country Music Roundup, a weekly blog where we’ll give you the latest news in country music releases and local country shows. For a more in-depth analysis of the genre and where it’s headed, check back with our weekly Gone Country blog every week.

Questions, comments, suggestions? Let me know on Twitter @jakeharris4 or by email: jharris@statesman.com.

Gone Country: 7 things country fans can be thankful for this year

So far, the year has been full of surprises for country music fans. Some, like Loretta Lynn’s first album in more than a decade, were pleasantly welcome. Others, like Ronnie Dunn covering an Ariana Grande song, not so much.

But, as much as the naysayers and prognosticators like to bemoan the loss of “real country,” whatever that means, 2016 still had plenty of moments for country fans to be thankful for, no matter if you’re a staunch traditionalist or a pop-country crossover fan.

YouTube screenshot.
William Michael Morgan. YouTube screenshot.

Here’s a narrowed down list of things country fans can give thanks for this weekend.

7. Young up-and-comers proved they belonged 

This past year has been great for young country artists trying to make it in the industry. Jon Pardi and William Michael Morgan finally scored the recognition they deserve, in “California Sunrise” and “Vinyl,” respectively. Cody Johnson, a Texas act whose album almost went No. 1 before Blake Shelton sold his latest album for a discount, proved you don’t need the support of a record label if you make good music and you have dedicated fans.

On the other side of the spectrum, Maren Morris exploded onto the scene with a No. 1 hit. Cam, whose album dropped late last year, finally got some traction and touring recognition this year, as well as being nominated for two CMAs. Traditional and  well-done pop crossover country are being kept alive and well in the work of the above artists and many more.

6. Netflix’s “The Ranch” championed country music and its fans

If you haven’t seen “The Ranch,” Ashton Kutcher’s Netflix comedy about a down-on-his-luck ex-NFL quarterback named Colt (Kutcher) who makes his way back home to Colorado to tend to the family farm with his dim-witted brother Rooster (Danny Masterson), stern father (Sam Elliot) and bar-owning mother (Debra Winger)…I’m not saying you should watch it, but if you’re looking for easygoing Red State laughs, you could do a lot worse. The punch lines are predictable from a mile off, and some of the stereotypes get old after a few episodes, but the show kept me watching through the first part of its two-half season for two reasons:

  • It’s a sitcom filmed in front of a live audience, but it’s aired on Netflix, which means you’ll get a normal three-cam setup on a streaming service and you’ll hear audience laughter after a joke where a character drops an f-bomb. The novelty of that juxtaposition never quite goes away.
  • There’s a ton of references to country music in this show, for artists of all stripes. All of the episode titles from the first half of the season come from Kenny Chesney songs, and the second half titles cull from the catalog of none other than George Strait. The theme song is a “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” cover from Lukas Nelson and Shooter Jennings. Other artists like Turnpike Troubadours, Corb Lund, American Aquarium, Justin Townes Earle, Brandi Carlile, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Ashley Monroe, Chesney and Luke Bryan also appear throughout the show. And there’s a lot of jokes that revolve around country music, too. If you’re a country fan who’s willing to endure the occasional terrible joke about herpes to hear the music you love get some exposure on a national platform, then “The Ranch” is for you.

5. Wheeler Walker, Jr. inverted country music tropes

Wheeler Walker, Jr. is the comic country creation of comedian Ben Hoffman. His debut album “Redneck S—” was released in February and hit No. 9 on the U.S. country charts, No. 6 on the independent albums chart and No. 1 in the U.S. comedy charts. Including such songs as “Beer, Weed, Cooches” and “F— You Bitch,” the album is decidedly NSFW. But it sounds like an outlaw country record from the 70s and 80s. The only difference is that instead of, say, using metaphors to express his pain over a breakup, Walker just tells his ex what he feels in the moment, with all the profanity and explicitness one could imagine. Hoffman modifies his voice juuust enough to sound country, and keeping traditional instrumentation makes the parodies hit harder. That he has a huge following only adds to his legitimacy as an act and further blurs the line between what’s real and what’s comedy.

4. The Brothers Osborne won Best Vocal Duo at the CMAs

The Brothers Osborne have had a hell of a year. The January release of their debut album “Pawn Shop” yielded three hit singles and earned the duo two CMA nominations and a Grammy nomination. Their win for one of those CMA nominations, “Best Vocal Duo,” was one of the biggest upsets of the night at the CMAs earlier in November. Florida Georgia Line was poised to win the award four years in a row. This may not mean anything to you if you’re not a fan of country music awards shows or what they represent (and I don’t blame you; at my last unofficial count there was, like, 500 of them), but it signals a tide change in bro-country. Florida Georgia Line lost a prestigious award to an up-and-coming group with a more traditional sound. Bro-country might finally be on its way out, and that’s something we can all give thanks for.

3. The Dixie Chicks ran off into Wide Open Spaces again

In case you didn’t hear, the Dixie Chicks made an appearance at the CMAs with Beyoncé. That moment was important for country music and the awards show it was featured in, but that stop was one of the last on the Chicks’ tour, a tour where they routinely covered Bey’s “Daddy Lessons” on stage. The MMXVI World Tour tour was only their second full-length tour since 2007, after the band toured to promote “Taking the Long Way” in the wake of lead singer Natalie Maines’ comments about then-President George W. Bush.

Many country stars are Democrats, but few express those views openly. In 2016, it’s easy for a country star to fire off an opinion on Twitter or go on a Facebook rant. Technology plays a huge part in that, no doubt, but no matter what side of the political aisle you fall on, if you’re a country star and you have an opinion, the Chicks helped pave the way for you to express it within the industry. For the best-selling country group in the world at the time to spout an opinion contrary to many of their fans’ was a watershed moment for country music in 2003. The Chicks’ return to the touring stage this year is a sign of how much the times have changed, and how much they’ve stayed the same. Speaking of which…

2. It was a big year for the ‘tomatoes’ of country music

Last year, radio programming consultant Keith Hill compared women in country music to tomatoes in a salad, implying that they exist only to complement the more “lettuce”-like stars of the genre (AKA the men) who make more money and are more successful. Unfortunate fruit and greens metaphors aside, the comment was shortsighted, misogynistic and further drove a wedge between female country artists and the radio system that helps promote them. Later in the year, it became public that in interviews, Maddie & Tae were instructed to laugh off the rebuttal of sexist tropes in the song that made them famous, and Florida Georgia Line took enough issue with “Girl in a Country Song” that they said they didn’t know any girls who didn’t want to be in the country songs they described.

Fast forward to 2016. Loretta Lynn, Margo Price, Brandy Clark, Lori McKenna, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Kelsea Ballerini, Maren Morris, Kacey Musgraves, Dolly Parton, Reba, Martina McBride and Cam either released stellar new albums, were nominated for several awards, were honored for a lifetime of achievement or all of the above, oftentimes with more radio play than female artists received in 2015. We still have a long way to go—  a recent study revealed that country music has slowly become more misogynistic— but this year was decidedly better than the last for women in the industry. Hopefully 2017 will get even better.

1. A lot of great albums came out this year

I was just as surprised as the next viewer when Eric Church’s “Mr. Misunderstood” won “Album of the Year” at the CMAs. Unceremoniously released a year ago to no fanfare, the album doesn’t lend itself well to radio singles, and it’s best experienced in a full listen to get the full effect of the album. And that wasn’t the only great album released within the last year that bears repeated listening to.

In today’s country music radio format, it’s rare when an album that’s not just a collection of singles arrives, ready to take you on a thematic journey. In no particular order, some of those album this year that were more than the sum of their single parts are:

  • “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” Margo Price
  • “Lovers and Leavers,” Hayes Carll
  • “California Sunrise,” Jon Pardi
  • “Vinyl,” William Michael Morgan
  •  “The Weight of These Wings,” Miranda Lambert
  • “The Bird and the Rifle,” Lori McKenna
  • “Big Day in a Small Town,” Brandy Clark
  • “American Band,” Drive-By Truckers
  • “Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” Sturgill Simpson
  • “Rockingham,” BJ Barham
  • “Black,” Dierks Bentley
  • “Shine on Rainy Day,” Brent Cobb
  • “Southern Family,” produced by Dave Cobb
  • “I’m Not the Devil,” Cody Jinks
  • “Full Circle,” Loretta Lynn

 

Gone Country aims to thoughtfully explore the country music genre and where it’s headed, with a focus on national trends and buzzworthy news of the week. For info about album releases and concerts, check out this week’s Country Music Roundup.

Questions, comments, suggestions? Let me know on Twitter @jakeharris4 or through email at jharris@statesman.com.

Country Music Roundup: A new book of Johnny Cash poetry is now available

This Week’s News

7/4/90 Larry Kolvoord AMERICAN-STATESMAN.....Willie Nelson's 4th of July picnic. Willie & Highway Men with Johnny Cash.
7/4/90 Larry Kolvoord AMERICAN-STATESMAN…..Willie Nelson’s 4th of July picnic. Willie & Highway Men with Johnny Cash.

Johnny Cash may be one of the most prolific posthumous country stars. “American VI: Ain’t No Grave” and “Out Among the Stars” gave fans of the Man In Black more work to cherish after the legend died in 2003, and they were commercial successes as well. Now, a new book of poems spanning Cash’s entire life has been published by his estate.

“Forever Words: The Unknown Poems,” released Nov. 15, is a collection of 41 poems that Cash wrote throughout his life that were found by his son John Carter Cash. According to the younger Cash in an interview with Rolling Stone Country, he culled the poems from a collection of about 200 or so that the elder Cash left behind.

“Seeing my father’s handwriting puts me in contact with the man he was at each stage of his life,” Cash told Rolling Stone.

The poems span from when Johnny Cash was 14 years old right up until weeks before his death 13 years ago.

“When I read these poems, it’s as if my father is speaking to me again,” John Carter Cash said.

The book isn’t the final product for these poems. An album is in the works, too, with artists like Jamey Johnson, Dailey & Vincent, T Bone Burnett, Brad Paisley and Chris Cornell (whom Cash covered on “American II: Unchained”) recording some of the poems and setting them to music.

“Dailey & Vincent do a spot-on bluegrass gospel number and Cornell’s track is so powerful and gut-wrenching,” Cash said of the album.

The album is still in the recording phase, so there is no expected release date yet. “Forever Words” the book can be ordered here or at local bookstores.

This Week’s Best New Song

George Strait surprised fans with a secretive return to Gruene Hall last week. The show was closed off to everyone except some media members and some lucky few who had connections, but people were standing outside listening and thousands watched online in a livestream sponsored by Wrangler. The set showcased decades of hits for King George ahead of the release of his second box set, “Strait Out of the Box: Part 2.” It was also the first live performance of “Kicked Outta Country,” a new song that was co-written with Jamey Johnson, through text message, no less. The song is one of only two “country radio sentiment” songs from Strait, the other being “Murder on Music Row.”

“Kicked Outta Country” probably won’t get played on the radio, but it’s a great examination of the current state of Strait’s career while also acknowledging the huge part radio played in making him famous. And it’s always nice to hear another Jamey Johnson-penned tune.

This Week’s Worst New Song

LoCash isn’t really an act that one could call country, but nevertheless, this song has been on country radio since Nov. 14, and the duo are currently sitting on a No. 1 Billboard hit in “I Know Somebody.” This travesty, co-written by the much-better-than-this Thomas Rhett, features cringe-worthy lyrics about just how over-the-top someone is willing to go to prove he loves his “girl” (no name given for the lucky lady, naturally). The Latin-tinged song goes to great lengths to make sure it’s as radio-manufactured as possible, and even slips in this “It sounded better in ym head” come-on: “Let’s spend this life together, dropping f-bombs like forever.” You only need one finger for this one, and it’s not the ring finger.

This Week’s Best Country Show in Austin

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Hayes Carll. Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez/American-Statesman.

Friday: Hayes Carll, Band of Heathens at the Paramount. It’s been a big year for Texas troubadour Carll, who released his first album in five years, “Lovers and Leavers,” and got a best country song nomination at the Grammys for Lee Ann Womack’s cover of his tune “Chances Are.” Next year is shaping up to be a big one for Americana rockers Band of Heathens, whose upcoming disc “Duende,” due in January, will be their first in four years. $22-$45. 8 p.m. 713 Congress Ave. austintheatre.org. — Peter Blackstock

This is the Country Music Roundup, a weekly blog where we’ll give you the latest news in country music releases and local country shows. For a more in-depth analysis of the genre and where it’s headed, check back with our weekly Gone Country blog every week.

Questions, comments, suggestions? Let me know on Twitter @jakeharris4 or by email: jharris@statesman.com.

Meet Midland, a Dripping Springs country music trio that just released one of the year’s best EPs

You wouldn’t expect a country trio that sounds like The Eagles to be signed to Big Machine Records, but 2016 is full of surprises.

Midland, a trio from Dripping Springs, just released on Oct. 28 one of the year’s best country EPs through the record label best known for signing Taylor Swift. While that may sound like a stretch, Midland’s sound could not have arrived at a better time for mainstream country music. With their three-part harmonies and Dwight Yoakam-esque emotion, guitarist Jess Carson, bassist Cameron Duddy and lead vocalist Mark Wystrach have crafted a sound that feels lived-in but is entirely their own.

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 02: Cameron Duddy, Mark Wystrach, and Jess Carson of Midland attend the Big Machine Label Group's celebration of the 50th Annual CMA Awards at Marathon Music Works on November 2, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Anna Webber/Getty Images for BMLG)
Cameron Duddy, Mark Wystrach, and Jess Carson of Midland attend the Big Machine Label Group’s celebration of the 50th Annual CMA Awards at Marathon Music Works on November 2, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Anna Webber/Getty Images for BMLG)

The group got together three years ago in Jackson Hole, Wyo. when Carson and Wystrach arrived to town early to be in Duddy’s wedding and started playing some music together.

“We’re all from different places, but we all wound up in California at the same time, and that’s how we all met at first,” Carson told me in a  phone interview last week. “I’ve known Cam for more than 10 years, and Cam had played in bands with Mark, so that was the link.”

The wedding weekend collaboration came about with the three of them realizing they all liked country music, and they decided they needed to play as a group together.

“We wanted to do something with music, but none of us were sure about how that would work— we were just really serious about it,” Carson said. “We’ve mostly only been a band, in its current state, for about three years.”

Those three years included an early recording session in El Paso that yielded “Fourteen Gears,” the group’s first official collaboration. It also included thousands of hours of touring in Texas honky-tonks like Poodie’s Roadhouse, Broken Spoke and White Horse.

Now, they’re opening for the likes of Willie Nelson and Dwight Yoakam, and just signed with the aforementioned Big Machine Records.

“We went from struggling to get a gig to opening for Dwight, which was just crazy. And especially with meeting Willie, he’s such an icon. And since our EP came out, it’s just been insane the amount of press we’ve been getting. It’s been really surreal.”

Their self-titled EP was co-produced by Dan Huff and Shane McAnally*, and features co-writing credits from McAnally and Josh Osborne. Lead single “Drinkin’ Problem” was written with those two, a collaboration that Carson said was “as good as it gets.”

“It was just so natural writing with them, it came so quick, I think we wrote ‘Burn Out’ and ‘Drinkin’ Problem’ in the same session,” Carson said. “And they’re heavy hitters. They’re the type of people where you can’t stump them. They’ve just got a ton of country music knowledge. And I think they’ve helped us retain our own sound while keeping it current.”

The EP certainly sounds like a sound all its own. Aside from “Burn Out” and “Drinkin’ Problem,” there’s “Check Cashin’ Country,” a wry ode to backwoods Texas roads and the nature of the country music Midland wants to create; “This Old Heart,” a heartbreak song that sounds like it could have come from Alan Jackson circa 1994; and “Electric Rodeo,” a throwback to the 1970s, complete with rising strings.

If there’s a knock on the five-song EP, it’s that it sounds a bit too slickly produced at some points. Sometimes it feels like that Big Machine is humming right along, flexing its corporate muscle straight through the songs on down to the album art showcasing the trio in denim leaning up against a jukebox. After all, Midland sounds more traditional, and traditional country is a proven commodity now, especially after the rise of Chris Stapleton. Booking a group that sounds like The Eagles and looks like today’s top crossover stars is a no-brainer business decision.

But the EP hits you with its fresh new sound right away in a way that doesn’t beg for attention or demand that you take a listen. The songs are a wonderful reward for any country fan looking for something new.

And Carson said the group isn’t out to be labeled— that includes any “Texas country” or “Nashville country” categorizations.

“There was never a meeting where we said, ‘Hey, we want to sound like this,’ but especially with Cameron, The Eagles are one of his favorite bands, so the influence was definitely there. It all just grew out of our influences.

“I feel like Midland has a sound, and for better or worse, it’s different from other country that’s out there. I don’t feel like we fit into a category— are we a Texas band? Yeah. There’s a Texas-ness about what we do, and we have some songs about Texas. But we love Texas because it’s home and it’s where we set out to do our music. We’re resisting putting a brand on ourselves.”

As for a full album, fans will have to wait until sometime next year. But for right now, check out Midland’s EP on Spotify, featured below.

*Correction: Dan Huff and Shane McAnally are co-producers of the “Midland” EP. An earlier version of this blog did not include McAnally in that capacity.