Author: Leon Blair
The music business is a cut-throat, kick you on your ass kind of system. There are millions of artists out there who face the struggles of trying to make any semblance of a name for themselves in the music world. If you want to make it in the big time however, there are certain rules you have to play by, rules that are prevalent to us Country and Americana fans but are also prevalent across all genres. One of these rules is giving your major record label exactly what they want even if it doesn't line up with what you want to give them.
This unfair system of appeasing the labels is often thought to be exclusive to mainstream country music, a land that is full of label and radio politics. Some artists try to keep up with trends as well as give their label the catchy songs they need for the radio. It totally excludes any artistry and often will get artists very deservingly frustrated.
Author: Zackary Kephart
Here at Country Music Minds we always are trying to find more and more artists to showcase to you, the readers. However, being a two man operation, I think it's fair to say that we can't possibly hear or review everything out there (as much as we would love to).
While Country Music Minds isn't the first to finally get around to Texas based singer/songwriter Larry Hooper, we hope that we aren't the last. Larry is a family man first and foremost and doesn't tour extensively, hence why you may haven't heard of him until now. He's released three studio albums at this point (including the one that will be talked about later on), going back to 2005 with his first album, Rust.
Indeed, the only reason Country Music Minds came across him was due to a review of his new album, No Turning Back over at Farce The Music. When hearing about the album containing hip-hop beats, Justin Timberlake covers and Star Wars porn parodies, I wasn't sure what to expect from Mr. Hooper. I knew of course that they were joking but still, weirder things have happened in music these days. Even with that, it left me intrigued to check out the real sound behind No Turning Back.
Author: Leon Blair
I don't think there's a real easy way to start this review.
When discussing Blake Shelton's newest studio album, If I'm Honest, there's really only one huge event you can talk about that played a part in the making of it. We all know what it is. This isn't me writing another review for an indie act explaining their background and why you should be listening to them. This is Blake Shelton, and unless you've been living under a rock for the past year, you know exactly what event I'm talking about.
The divorce between Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert is one that seemed to go as quick as it could for a celebrity couple. The details behind the “why” were never clearly answered, and as most muscians need to do in times of hardship, Blake Shelton decided to express his feelings through his music. Indeed, Blake Shelton's tenth album was self-proclaimed to be his most personal and honest work to date, covering topics such as his marriage to Lambert as well as his newfound love in Gwen Stefani.
As much as us hardcore music nerds on the Internet are loathe to admit, the truth is that for something to have a chance at being accepted by mainstream country radio, it's required to have a considerable amount of commercial appeal. That means uber-traditional sounds and extremely complex songwriting are pretty much out. Given those constraints, an album like Trent Tomlinson's 2006 debut Country is My Rock is exactly what modern mainstream country could (and should) sound like. It's traditional enough to register as unabashed country music, but accessible enough to not scare away a general audience. It's also substantive enough to hold the attention of those seeking depth and storytelling in their music, but melodious enough to appeal to casual music fans just looking for pleasant background noise on their morning commute. It's in this way that this album reminds me of much of the better of '90s country music: widely appealing without sacrificing its identity or intelligence.
The preceding paragraph is in no way meant to imply that Country is My Rock is only good when compared to other modern era mainstream releases. It's a highly satisfying album by any standard. With only one or two exceptions which we'll get to later, the quality of the songwriting on this album is very high. Trent had a hand in writing every track on the album, proving his aptitude as a tunesmith. His voice is a little on the thin side, but he has a very likeable voice, and gets the most of his abilities. He is a skilled interpreter who is passionate and convincing in his performances.
Author: Zackary Kephart
It’s always fascinating as a critic watching certain bands grow throughout the years. Yes, I am implying the term “evolution”, a term that is often so misused when it comes to describing actual artistic growth. However, when it comes to the Asheville, North Carolina based band, The Honeycutters, I truly feel that we have a band that has truly grown more and more with every album.
Just last year we saw lead vocalist and songwriter Amanda Platt take full creative control over the band’s third studio album, Me Oh My, an album that showcased the band’s strong, very pleasing roots based sound as well as Platt’s excellent songwriting. With that, it was easily the band’s most focused album to date, and the direction they chose to take from there was as good as anyone’s guess.
For their fourth album, On The Ropes, The Honeycutters show off their most versatile and exciting work to date, choosing to take their rootsy, traditional country sound and push it farther by incorporating elements of pop, rock, and soul in some places. In addition, unlike their last album, On The Ropes, the tempo changes from their mid-tempo comfort zone that bogged down the consistency of Me Oh My. In other words, this is the Honeycutter’s best album to date.
Author: Leon Blair
Honestly, I'm not sure if writing this is the best idea. However, I feel that there is an issue that needs to be brought up not just for me but for every critic out there – genre lines.
For those who don't know I was once a writer This Is Country Music as well as Country Perspective, two Country/Americana oriented blogs. During my time at both respective places I reviewed songs that I deemed destructive to the genre based primarily on their lack of country sounds as well as elementary level lyrics with more of an emphasis placed on the former than the latter. And over time as I grew more and more hardened towards the state of modern mainstream country music, some people even joked that I had become a “purist”, someone who immediately shunned anything that wasn't country and gave it the failing grade just because it wasn’t Country.
Of course, I am not solely a purist, nor would I let the song’s genre be the sole reason I like or dislike it. I have liked plenty of country songs over the years that didn't sound traditional. One of the only albums to score a perfect 10 on The Country Line is Chris King’s “Animal” and it isn’t really Country at all. In addition I also just gave a favorable review to the latest blues album from Sammy Kershaw. I believe in grading music for its quality, not what genre you assign it under. It's just that as a country oriented critic, a song that is being sent to country radio claiming to be country has to be called out in my book. There’s a danger that results from not calling it out which I’ll get to later on. Of course, there's a paradox that results from all of this:
Author: Zackary Kephart
You know, I think there's a part in everyone that wants to root for the underdog. I mean what's not to love? They do things their way and don't give up even when the odds are against them. When it comes to music, especially country music, if you venture outside of the mainstream and outside of your radio dials you'll find a countless number of underdog musicians just trying to make the music they want to make.
And you know, we live in a world today where these underdogs can become more easily noticed thanks to the advent of the Internet and its many outlets of interaction through social media and music streaming services. Heck, just take a look at a guy like Aaron Watson, someone who's been in the business for more than fifteen years playing music. Isn't it a little ironic that he scored his first No. 1 Country album last year with one called “The Underdog”? People are taking notice of independent musicians, and musicians such as Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell are proof of this. When you turn off the radio and explore music that actually means something, you're sure to find a treasure.
And this brings us to Tyller Gummersall, raised in Southwest Colorado and self-proclaimed independent artist. Tyller has been immersed with music all throughout his life, desiring to be a singer ever since he was a little kid. You won't hear songs trying to pander for attention on a mainstream country radio dial. Instead, you'll find songs that come from the heart and more importantly, actually sound like they belong in country music. At the age of twenty-five Tyller has now released his fourth album, Long Ride Home produced by Lloyd Maines.
Alt-country legend Steve Earle famously dealt with a bevy of personal problems in the late '80s and early '90s, not least among them a heroin addiction and a short stint in prison. Thankfully, he managed to achieve sobriety and put his life back on track, and it was living through those experiences that brought about the most creatively fertile portion of his career. He released the excellent acoustic record Train a Comin' in 1994, followed it up with the masterful I Feel Alright in 1996, and continued the winning streak with 1997's El Corazón ("The Heart" in English), which I'll be reviewing today.
Steve Earle is one of those artists whose sound is impossible to pigeonhole. He can pull off country-folk, hard rock, and traditional bluegrass, often all on the same album, and El Corazón is a great example of his versatility. Successful stabs are taken at bluegrass ("I Still Carry You Around" with the Del McCoury Band, foreshadowing their later collaborative album), pure country ("The Other Side of Town"), and hard rock (the outstanding "N.Y.C.", in which Earle is accompanied by the alternative rock band the Supersuckers). While the production of "N.Y.C." is laid on thick, specifically in an apparent vocal distortion in the chorus, it completely works in the context of the song's narrative of a young man visiting the Big Apple for the first time. Other strong tracks include the alt-country/rock humdinger "If You Fall", the confident mission statement "Here I Am", and "Poison Lovers", a well-crafted duet with English pop singer-songwriter Siobhan Kennedy.
In 1975, Emmylou Harris released her first major album, Pieces of the Sky, to great acclaim. Largely conceived and recorded while Harris was mourning the sudden death of her close friend and mentor, country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, it remains one of the finest entries in her legendary catalogue. While Harris had already gained some recognition as a duet partner and bandmate of Parsons, whether she could succeed as a solo artist was an open question. Needless to say, Harris passed the test with flying colors.
Produced by Brian Ahern (whom Harris would marry and later divorce), the album enlisted the aid of many top musicians, some already legends and others who were then just starting out but would go on to be superstars. Credited on the album are (you might want to pull up a chair for this) are rock guitar legend James Burton, fiddle virtuoso Richard Greene, Billy Payne of Little Feat, Bernie Leadon of the Eagles, former Crickets member Glen D. Hardin, ex-Dillards member Herb Pedersen, Linda Ronstadt as a backing vocalist, and even future Entertainer of the Year-winner Ricky Skaggs playing fiddle on a couple of tracks. Needless to say, there aren't a lot of albums with this much star power, especially from so many diverse areas of music.