Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Randy Travis - Anniversary Collection

Earlier this summer, one of the most distinctive voices in country music, Randy Travis, released his Anniversary Collection, a compilation of duets pairing Travis with some of country music’s top talent. The album features, primarily, a good portion of Travis’ top hits mixed with a smattering of unimpressive originals. In fact, aside from one or two duets noteworthy only because of the vocal prowess or star-power brought by the other singer, Travis’ Anniversary Collection is a regrettable eulogy for Travis’ career.

One of the most successful country artists during the late eighties and nineties, Randy Travis overcame alcohol, drug and marital problems to land over thirty singles on Billboard’s country chart. His deep baritone and country twang were unique at a time that lacked a true low-range talent – a void created during the twilight of the careers of Cash and Jones and before the rise of Josh Turner and the bevy of deep-voiced talent we have today.

He was an earnest and truthful crooner who transitioned with relative ease between ballads and the up-tempo barroom swing so common to late eighties and early nineties country. Hits like “Forever and Ever, Amen,” “On the Other Hand,” and “Diggin’ Up Bones” rolled out of the Travis camp with formulaic but confident certainty, a self-assurance derived from commanding a niche all your own. I’d go so far as to argue that “Deeper than the Holler,” a #1 hit from Travis’ Old 8x10 album, is one of the best country songs of its era, a pure example of Travis at his best.

During the second half of the nineties and for much of the 20th century, Travis’ career was defined by forays into acting and a cross-over into the Christian genre. Undoubtedly, this paralleled Travis’ re-discovery of religion and his conquering of many of the personal demons that plagued him throughout much of his life (certainly a positive thing, it also spurred the release of “Three Wooden Crosses,” Travis’ last major success), but the years of abuse took a perilous toll on his voice, a fact painfully evident in Anniversary Collection.

It’s always difficult to see an entertainer struggle to hold on to their talents as age and their body’s work against them. We see it in sports all the time with the likes of Brett Favre and Shaq, who stuck around a few years too long insisting they could still play, and we see it in music as well every time a broke band mounts a reunion tour or a singer comes out with an ill-received album in their later years.

Here, the few listenable tracks owe their limited appeal more to Travis’ duet partner than to him. In fact, sadly, these tracks succeed in spite of him, rather than because of him. “A Few Ole Country Boys” with Jamey Johnson is worth a listen only because Johnson absolutely nails his verses, as is the case with “T.I.M.E” with Josh Turner (a forgettable song but Turner sounds great). It’s almost a cruel joke concocted by the producers to match Travis with two of country’s great current baritones – the juxtaposition of Travis with two artists in their vocal prime just serves to highlight his fading vocal ability. Pairing Travis with Alan Jackson on “Better Class of Losers” is laughable with a spot-on Jackson running circles around Travis who never had strong command of pitch even in his prime, and he's blown completely out of the recording studio by the vocal nuance of Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth in “Love Looks Good on You.” The album also interestingly features surprisingly weak performances from two of country’s biggest stars -- Carrie Underwood on “Is it Still Over” and Kenney Chesney on “He Walked on Water.”

It’s a touching tribute that so many well-respected artists would honor Travis by lending their voices to the album, and it’s a testament to his music’s power to shape artists of multiple generations across multiple genres. But there’s a time when even the great ones have to hang it up, and for Travis, the time has sadly arrived.

Editor's Note

The Urban Cowboy team would like to welcome famed graphic designer and country music aficionado Brett Lemberger as a guest writer.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Kenny Chesney @ The Meadowlands (8/13/2011) by Brett Lemberger

The bigger the crowd, the bigger the spotlight, the bigger the performance.

Kenny Chesney entertained an estimated crowd of 55,000 non-stop for 2.5 hours, with a 31-song set list that rocked New Meadowlands Stadium. Although rain was in the forecast all afternoon, the only interruptions were a number of pauses for Chesney to hint, "we usually stop now but we're gonna keep on playin' if that's alright with you."

While set list websites claim Chesney played an 8-song encore, there was never an initial exit. There was no curtain call. Chesney played right on through and even invited some friends to come out and join him, including the Zac Brown Band, who was more than just an opening act on Saturday.

Including the final 8 songs with Chesney, ZBB played a total of 27 hits, and provided evidence that the 82,566 person venue could be home to one of their own shows some day.

To the crowd who had been tailgating since the morning, and mostly remained in the parking lots while Uncle Kracker and then Billy Currington warmed up the microphones, the ZBB was a reason for fans to pack up their grills and head to their seats.

They opened with As She's Walking Away, a beautifully melodic tune that accentuates the vocal prowess of the grizzly Zac Brown. As the sun began to set in the NJ sky, ZBB rounded out their afternoon with fan favorites It's Not Okay, Highway 20 and Colder Weather. In the midst of their strong harmonies, ZBB broke out The Devil Went Down To Georgia, a perfect song for a band that stars Jimmy de Martini on the violin.

As the night sky continued to grow darker, Zac Brown made sure that the fans who came for him left happy. At this point in their career, A ZBB concert without Chicken Fried would be like a 2005 O.A.R. concert without 'Crazy Game of Poker'. Their rendition of their first hit, along with the rest of their performance, met every expectation. Zac Brown flew through the fretboard of his guitar with unanticipated grace, and readied the crowd for the biggest attraction of the 7 hour concert event.

(See Zac Brown Band's complete set list here)

Chesney introduced himself to the crowd by floating down above the center of the field seats, a stunt he pulled at Madison Square Garden in July of 2006. A bit more interesting this time as there is no roof to the 1 year old venue. He came in singing Live A Little and followed it up with Reality. After that it was vintage Chesney, playing old songs that the crowd sang when Chesney moved off of the mic.

His concerts mean the weather's warm, and his music fit the bill. Summertime, Beer In Mexico, and No Shoes No Shirt No Problem were much more soothing than the $9.75 beers.

Chesney's ability to change tempo without missing a beat was one theme of the night. From the romantic Anything But Mine and You And Tequila, the boy from Tennessee jumped right into Living In Fast Forward. And from Out Last Night, Chesney settled into When The Sun Goes Down as he reintroduced Uncle Kracker to the New Jersey crowd.

The other theme of the evening was a tribute to everyone else important in Chesney's life. Covers made up 10 of the final 14 songs. Everything from Kid Rock's Cowboy, to Steve Miller's The Joker, which overlapped with Bob Marley's Three Little Birds. It was at this point that the stage was full of celebrities including the entire Zac Brown Band, Billy Currington, Sonya Leigh and New York Yankee outfielder Nick Swisher.

One final person important to Chesney made an appearance: his mom. Chesney deemed this particular show important enough to invite his mother onto the stage to give a wave to the crowd.

The day was proof that country does exist in the north. And while one romantic song was absent from the set list, the whole crowd was certainly happy not to have to hear There's Something Sexy About The Rain.

(See Kenny Chesney's complete set list here)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Daily Double Song of the Day: Toby Keith - "Country Comes to Town"

Heard this one on the radio and couldn't help putting it up. Classic Toby Keith. For all those who haven't heard it...

Song of the Day: JT Hodges - "Hunt You Down"

Thoughts? This song has been picked up by a few country stations, but the jury's still out on my end. Is it even country?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Vocal Look-a-Likes

Consider this post a warning -- Do not be duped by cheap impersonations. There are artists out there that would have you believe they are someone entirely different. Remember when Ursula steals Ariel’s voice in the Little Mermaid? Yep, that ‘s what we’re talking about here. Vocal theft. Impossible you say? Consider these four artists that sound remarkably similar to more established country stars….

Name: Rodney Atkins

Sounds Like: Tim McGraw

Explanation: I admit it might be a bit of a stretch to put such a well-established artist like Atkins on this list, but compared to Tim McGraw, he’s still got a ways to go. Atkins’ voice might be a little lower and little more gravely, and Tim McGraw has undoubtedly better range, but their song choices and some of their vocal characteristics are remarkably similar.

Don’t Believe Me? Listen To: “Farmer’s Daughter” (Atkins) vs. “Down on the Farm”(McGraw).

Doppelganger Rating: 6/10

Name: Bradley Gaskin

Sounds Like: Travis Tritt

Explanation: The newcomer from Duck Springs, Alabama is currently working on his first hit, “Mr. Bartender.” Debuting a few months ago, the song sounds remarkably like the classic Travis Tritt bar-room ballads that brought Tritt so much success in the early nineties. I haven’t heard much of Gaskin’s other stuff, but of the songs I’ve heard, this eerie likeness doesn’t appear to be a fluke.

Don’t Believe Me? Listen To: “Mr. Bartender” (Gaskin) vs. “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)” (Tritt).

Doppelganger Rating: 7/10

(Bradley Gaskin)

Name: Hunter Hayes

Sounds Like: Gary LeVox (Rascal Flatts)

Explanation: Heading up our ultra-tenor category, Hunter Hayes (who I discussed at length a few days ago here), can owe much of his recent success to his voice, which he controls extremely well on some very challenging vocal runs. Don’t believe me? Try singing “Storm Warning” right now – that’s right, very difficult. Anyway, you wouldn’t be the first to hear Hayes’ hit and think LeVox had embarked on a solo career. Relax Rascal fans, there’s nothing to be worried about here – it’s just young Hunter Hayes, although you might need a few listens to convince yourself.

Don’t Believe Me? Listen To: “Storm Warning” (Hayes) vs. “Oklahoma Texas Line” (LeVox).

Doppelganger Rating: 9/10

Name: Easton Corbin

Sounds Like: George Strait

Explanation: Corbin is another artist we’ve profiled on Urban Cowboy back when he released his first major hit, “A Little More Country Than That.” (See here.) Since then, he’s continued to see his star rise with a few other well-received hits and plenty of buzz, and rightfully so. Of all the artists on this list, Corbin’s voice is nearly indistinguishable from one of the most successful country artists of all time. It can’t possibly be a bad thing to be called the next George Strait.

Don’t Believe Me? Listen To: “Roll With It” (Corbin) vs. “Blue Clear Sky” (Strait).

Doppelganger Rating: 10/10

Monday, August 8, 2011