Thursday, April 8, 2010
To get a sense of Corbin's talent just listen to his two hit singles -- "A Little More Country Than That" and "Roll With It." Corbin saw "A Little more Country" rise all the way to #1 on the charts -- an unexpected, but nonetheless, welcome success for the newcomer. The song seeks to establish Corbin in the George Strait mold -- a true cowboy from the backwoods. The song is produced to reflect the lyrical message -- it's relatively basic, not extraordinarily vocally challenging, and allows Corbin to make the song his own. Strait didn't make it big on the power of his vocal runs, he made it because the music he was making was true country, plain and simple. And that's exactly where Corbin succeeds on this track.
His follow-up single, "Roll With It," is a little more up-beat than his previous hit, and arrives just in time for summer when most artists are releasing more light-hearted cuts. It's a catchy song, lacking any deep message, that invokes the positive images of summertime and young love -- a tell-tale warm-weather country song. "Roll With It" is also not very complex, but with Corbin's delivery and Straitesque persona, it doesn't have to be. His future success will be determined by how closely he can stay true to this format, and how, perhaps, he can make it his own.
Coming soon -- a review of Alan Jackson's highly anticipated new album Freight Train!
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
Today though I'd like to mix it up a bit and offer a review of a recent hit song and my thoughts on a questionable artist management decision. So let's begin shall we?
"Lover, Lover" by Jerrod Niemann -- Jerrod Niermann is a relative newcomer to the country scene and "Lover, Lover" marks his first major top 40 hit. The song has received considerable airplay in recent weeks and it's likely due to the unique chorus -- a multi-part harmony with minimal instrumental accompaniment. This innovative (and refreshing) production decision works like a charm in accomplishing its desired goal -- the song stands out. If you were driving down the highway listening to good old country radio and this tune came on, you'd know it, it just wouldn't blend in with everyone else you've been hearing. Not to say this tune is a rousing success. The verses are almost intolerably drab and generic, and Niemann often has to drag out syllables to make the verses work rhythmically, but overall this song is a breath of fresh air. Great production decision to cut out the music at the end and allow all the parts to go acapella in a great ending harmony. Check it out at the end of this post.
Now I'd like to wax poetic a bit on the decision of the Zac Brown Band to open for Dave Matthews on their upcoming summer tour. Listen, I've had my Dave Matthews phase, as I'm sure many of you have, and their music is great. There's a reason they have been one of the most successful and critically acclaimed bands of the last 15 years, and I know Dave has made a recent foray into country music (see "I'm Alive" from Kenny's Lucky Old Sun album), but I just don't think this is the right move for ZBB. True, they will get unrivaled exposure opening in front of massive crowds at huge venues for a widely diverse crowd (in terms of musical taste), and this could do a lot of good for country music. Exposing the unique country sound of ZBB to a bunch of non-country listeners could go great things for the industry, but I'm skeptical as to how this will be perceived by country purists.
ZBB has been hailed as one of country's most exciting new acts, a Georgia band that brings together awesome instrumentals (kind of a blue grass - Alabama mix) and poignant lyrics to every one of its songs. You've probably heard "Chicken Fried," but "Toes" and "Highway 20 Ride," and even the most recent hit, "Free," are equally as good. ZBB is killing it on country radio right now. Every song they release is an immediate hit. And yet, instead of opening for a major country star -- like Kenny, Brad, etc. -- or even headlining a tour themselves (an option that is not as far off in the future as you might think), they open for Dave Matthews? Is this going to allow them to emphasize their country roots or do they run the risk of crossing over into pop? If there's one thing I've learned in my years of listening to country music is that once a country artist releases a song that can be characterized as "pop," they are as good as dead to country radio. Look at major female stars of the 90's like Faith Hill and Shania -- once they toed the pop line, their careers experienced a serious fall off. To me, it's just not worth it for ZBB. Stick to country, or you run the risk of never being able to find your way back.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
1) If the song is going to begin with a musical intro (as most do) it needs to be one of either two things: loud enough to bring everyone to their feet right from the first chord or slow enough that it tricks the audience (or listener) into thinking they're about to hear a slow song. Both can be effective, but there really isn't any middle ground -- making a choice is important here. It's easy to tell when a song lacks direction from the start.
2) The beginning of the song should set the scene, and while it's important that the entire song be intriguing and lyrically well-crafted, it's of the utmost importance that the first verse be the strongest. Like any great novel, this is your change to draw your audience in -- don't waste it. A little humor here goes a long way. No one wants to here a country-rock song about something depressing, the point is to make the audience feel like they want to dance, so get it going from the beginning.
3) When it comes to instruments, less is more. As I've mentioned in earlier posts, overproduction is plaguing country music recently. If an instrument isn't lending something unique or essential to the song, then it shouldn't be there. Too much background takes away from the vocals, and makes a song sound too busy. The audience knows it, and the singer will know it to. After all, every country singer is, first and foremost, a singer -- so that should be the focus right?
4) On that note -- if the singer can pull it off, the greater the vocal range of a song, the better. Even if the listener doesn't realize it, when a song showcases a singer's range, it makes everything feel more dynamic. The song doesn't drag, doesn't get boring, and the artist can do more with what's written on the page. Vocal runs can be more exciting in a song that showcases more of a singer's talent, and a greater range allows for this increased freedom. If you've got it, rip it.
5) The basic structure for must country songs is: intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. For the most part this tried and true method is satisfactory, but the bridge is important. If you don't have anything meaningful to say in the bridge, don't say it!!! I can't stress this enough. A lot of the time artists (and songwriters) feel like they need to fill the space between the second and third chorus' with lyrics, but all too often this backfires. All you have to do is listen to Tim McGraw's "Southern Voice" to get my point. The bridge is ridiculous -- it doesn't fit the song at all, and it becomes abundantly clear that the songwriter just didn't have anything left to write, so he/she filled the space with the most generic lyrics they could think of. The point of all this? If you don't have something that adds to the song, let the instruments take over. If you've got a sick guitar player in the live (or studio) band, let them showcase their talent here. An awesome guitar run can be just as effective as a lyric-based bridge.
6) Make the last chorus stand out. By now, the audience has heard the chorus twice and if you're going to close your album or show with this song, you better make it memorable. Cut the background instruments and let the author go a capella before bringing everything back in if you want. This will often make the audience feel like they've been bowled over by sound -- it heightens the effect and that's what any artist wants right? Not always an option that should be pursued, but one of many that can achieve the desired result.
7) A quality musical outro is a must. The song has to end with some sort of instrumental run that can be extended during a live show (when the artist is saying his goodbyes, signing autographs etc.), but is also intriguing to the listener listening on their ipod. About 15-20 seconds after the last chorus should do. Let the band do their thing here and if the artist wants to come in with some kind of riff at the end, perfect. Even a speaking section during the last few bars -- to cap the song, and perhaps add a little humor, works perfectly here.
Well there you have it. The how-to guide to craft your own country-rock song. Get to it -- the industry needs songwriters/producers who know what good music sounds like.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
"Dirt Road Dancing" by Matt Stillwell - A really catchy tune, I can see why its garnered a lot of airplay recently. It's not your every-day, Nashville sounding country song, but reminded me both lyrically and rhythmically of an Alabama song, particularly "Dixieland Delight." In fact, this song features a chord progression almost identical to "Dixieland Delight" and very common to tons of country songs. However, it suffers from one bewilderingly simple problem. In the last line of both verses there seem to be one too many syllables, which leads to an awkward sounding build to the chorus. More strangely, the words Matt sings to cause this lyrical oversight could easily be extracted without doing any damage to the song. How could the producer miss this? Such an easy problem to correct on an otherwise pretty solid song. Interesting note on this song, by the way. If you listen to Blake Shelton's "The More I Drink" you'll notice that the intros are virtually identical.
"Ain't Back Yet" by Kenny Chesney - I rarely knock my man Kenny, but this track is just a complete debacle. It's incredibly boring and quite frankly, sounds like every other typical "Nashville" country song. Kenny really isn't singing about much here, and the blaring background doesn't make up for the lack of any real substance up front. It's an absolutely forgettable song from a talented artist who has the recent tendency to overproduce. It seems very obvious that he just needed filler material for his "Greatest Hits II" album released earlier this month. Kenny, we expect better.
"Eight Second Ride" by Jake Owen - Thanks to my buddy Jeff for reminding me of this song. I'm fairly confident I listened to it a while back, and while it does adopt a tried and true formula for a country rock song, it's pretty catchy and a quality listen. Critics hammer Jake Owen for being to formulaic, but he continues to produce some pretty good tracks (in fact, I believe "Dont Think I Can't Love You" and "Starting With Me" are both well above average). This good-timing song isn't going to be a classic, but its an enjoyable tune from a developing talent.
"That's How Country Boys Roll" by Billy Currington - I've saved the best for last. Let me start by saying Billy Currington is an interesting situation. The guy has a great country voice -- pure and simple. He can hit all the low notes with surprising resonance but still possesses a strong upper range, and he's got a very distinctive voice. He hasn't, however, always made the right production decisions. Namely, he's been very erratic in his single release choices; from poppy duets with Shania Twain to middle of the road successes like "Good Directions" to lyrically sparse and critically acclaimed songs like "People Are Crazy," Currington has been all over the map. And in this song, he finds success in a formulaic, but high quality tune. This song won't be a classic, but I guarantee you'll enjoy listening to it, at least the first 10 times. After that, it will become startlingly obvious that this song is basically like many other hits you've heard before, but nonetheless, it does have the components to be a short-lived success.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
"Prop Me Up Beside The Jukebox (If I Die)" by Joe Diffie -- a classic early-nineties country tune if there ever was one, "Prop Me Up" is a tribute to the bar room lifestyle our protagonist loves so much. Diffie begins the song with a slow-tempo contemplation of life and death which rapidly turns into a good-timing, satirical shot at our own mortality. As you can imagine from the title, in the song Diffie claims that if he dies, he wants to be propped up beside the jukebox with his boots filled "up with sand and a stiff drink in his hand." A true cowboy at heart, what better place to spend eternity than a bar.
"Honey (Open That Door)" by Ricky Skaggs -- Sung by the mandolin-expert Ricky Skaggs, a longtime collaborator with the great Keith Whitley (one of country music's most revered legends), "Honey" is a foray into largely unfamiliar territory for Skaggs. A bluegrass musician first and foremost, vocal performances are not Skaggs' specialty, but "Honey" was just ridiculous enough to garner some serious airplay. The story of Skaggs losing all his money in a backroom, Dallas poker game, and the ensuing dispute between him and his "Honey," is high comedy, especially when you watch the video featuring Skaggs (with a classic late 80's/early 90's mullet) arguing with his midget landlord. Nonetheless, as ridiculous as the video sounds, the song is really quite enjoyable and definitely worth a listen.
"Older Women" by Ronnie Mcdowell - Perhaps the best known of the three artists featured in this section, Mcdowell recorded a run of hits in the eighties that made him a household name in country music. Among those tunes was Mcdowell's tribute to the cougar. The song opens with Mcdowell belting "Older women are beautiful lovers, older women they understand," and he certainly sounds like he means it. With it's simple drum beat and light-hearted lyrics, it's almost impossible not to like this song, despite the absurdity of the topic or the lyrics. The chances such a song would ever be heard today in Nashville are essentially nil -- a highly unfortunate circumstance of the evolution of country towards a more pop-based standard. However, I'd advise everyone to check out the three songs above, if not for their musicality, at least for some comic relief.
Monday, March 8, 2010
Last night, while tuning into the Oscars, I had the pleasure of hearing, for the first time, “The Weary Kind,” an original song written by Ryan Bingham for the movie Crazy Heart. What a pleasant surprise. After listening to so many country songs, one develops an ear for that unique sound that sets a song apart from its peers, and “The Weary Kind” is just that – a rough and raw cut that would do the fathers of country music proud.
Ryan Bingham’s gravely, untrained sound fits the song perfectly. An embodiment of the country-image (Bingham is a bull-rider turned country/folk singer), Bingham succeeds where so many of today’s artists fall short. “The Weary Kind” is by no means a vocal masterpiece – Bingham’s voice, as I’ve already mentioned, is far from opera worthy, and it does suffer from one major production flaw. In the studio version (not the one I've pasted below), the producers added a drum beat during the second verse. I understand the decision here -- that the low rumble of the drumbeat would further emphasize the somber, powerful tone of the song -- but, to be quite frank, it's simply unnecessary. This is a clear example of overproduction, an instance where allowing the song to progress with just the guitar and the artist's voice would have been much more powerful. Anyway, “The Weary Kind” stands apart from other popular country songs in the emotional sincerity infused into every single lyric. I’d challenge anyone to give this song a few listens and try to ignore the pain in Bingham’s voice as he laments that “somehow this don’t feel like home anymore.” I doubt that the song would receive much airplay from country radio if it weren’t featured in a major, award –winning motion picture. It’s about as different from mainstream country as a song can get. But I’d be willing to wager that the guys who pioneered the outlaw country movement in the 60’s and 70’s -- guys like Haggard, Kristofferson and Waylon – would find this to be about as good as a country song gets. As Kristofferson said “If it sounds country man, that’s what it is, a country song” – and this song couldn’t sound more country. It’s real and it’s raw and that’s what sets Bingham and “The Weary Kind” apart, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if an academy award is not the only honor this song earns in the days to come.
So Ryan Bingham, I know it’s a few days late, but nonetheless, this beer is for you.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
5. Leann Rimes - Old faithful. So who cares that she hasn't had a memorable hit in something like ten years, once upon a time Leann Rimes was Grade A smokeshow. Not even close to being legal when she burst on the stage with her hit album Blue at age 14, Rimes would quickly become one of country music's most recognizable female stars, and not just for her killer voice.
4. Kellie Pickler - You might not have heard of the former American Idol talent turned country singer, but Kellie Pickler is a sight to behold. With two quality hits to her name since she started singing country tunes professionally, "Red High Heels" and "I Wonder" (a self-written, heart-wrenching ballad), Pickler has recently been linked to Nashville Predators winger Jordin Tootoo. Despite her poor choice of NHL allegiance, Pickler is still one of the best looking ladies in country today.
3. Miranda Lambert - The singer who rocketed to stardom ever since her appearance on Urban Cowboy earlier this week is one of the sexiest women in country music. Sporting a no-holds barred attitude, this talented firecracker packs a great voice, can rip on the guitar and loves hunting and fishing. Sounds like the perfect woman. And I'm starting to sound like a TV-dating show.
2. Taylor Swift - It's a tough call between Swift and our first place finished, but in the end Swift's inexperience is the deal breaker. At a point in her career when everything she sings turns to platinum, Swift can seemingly do no wrong. Likely a main stay on the country and pop circuits for years to come, Swift is quite the looker as well. I know I'll catch a lot of hear for this one, but she just can't stand up to our gold-medal winner...
1. Carrie Underwood - In the end, it wasn't really a tough competition. An American Idol winner and perhaps the most successful female country singer over the past few years, Underwood is truly stunning. Though her past connection to Tony Romo is a questionable career move on her part, there's no knocking Romo on his taste. Her accolades are too numerous to list here: multi-platinum albums, Grammy wards and countless #1 hits, with undoubtedly more to come. The best looking woman in country music. Let the debate begin...
Monday, March 1, 2010
Hope everyone had a great weekend and enjoyed our first week on the internet. If you like what we’re doing here, I encourage you to spread the word, comment or sign up to follow along. Guest submissions are, as always, more than welcome.
I thought while we were on the topic of Blake Shelton, it might make sense to discuss Miranda Lambert a bit, and it really couldn’t have come at a better time. Miranda has been a consistent talent now for a few years. She burst onto the country scene with fiery hits like “Kerosene” and “Gunpowder and Lead”, playfully angry songs about getting revenge on guys who had wronged her. An extremely talented singer/songwriter, Lambert followed up those hits with a more refined track of releases including “Famous in a Small Town,” and recently, “White Liar,” a really well-put together vocal track. She’s a saucy girl – long on talent and looks.
But I don’t believe her most recent hit, “The House That Built Me,” is as poignant and moving as some people have recently suggested. In fact, certain notable blogs have gone as far as calling it the song of the year. Now this is the perfect example of what I was talking about last week. Here we have an up and coming talent, on the cusp of the A-list, singing a song about going back home to the “house that built her” to find herself. It’s emotionally daring, revealing and risky; the exposure of private feelings on a touching subject on such a public stage is always a personal risk. But that does not mean we need to automatically herald this song as being anything out of the ordinary. In fact, I don’t think there’s anything remarkably special about the song. Vocally, it’s extremely one-dimensional – there’s no vast exhibition of range or vocal talent. Contrary to what others have said, I also don’t find the lyrics extremely articulate. Ultimately, I think this song is lacks the invocation of emotion – the single most important factor, I believe, in judging a song’s success. How many people can relate to coming back to the house they grew up in, years later, and experiencing the memories of their childhood in an effort to find themselves? Yeah, maybe some people, but it’s a limited demographic. As a 22 year old, I can’t relate, and I find it difficult to believe that Miranda, at the ripe old age of 27, can either. Truly memorable songs elicit an emotional reaction in everyone that hears them -- maybe not the same emotion, but a significant response nonetheless. Miranda’s certainly got headlining talent, but “The House That Built Me” is not the hit its cracked up to be.
Friday, February 26, 2010
Wait, what? Blake Shelton? Wouldn’t you rather give the inaugural Beer of the Week to a living legend like Alan Jackson or George Strait or an A-list entertainer like Kenny Chesney or Brad Paisley?
Listen, I know those guys are great, but they receive loads of praise every day – everyone knows George Strait is one of the best ever and no one can rock a show like Kenny Chesney, but the guys who keep country music going are the solid voices who consistently produce high-quality music album after album. This is what Blake Shelton does.
As an artist, Blake’s vocal range is impressive – he can rock the lower end of the spectrum in upbeat tunes like his recent duet “Hillbilly Bone” with Trace Adkins and he can test the limits of his upper register in ballads like “Austin” and “Goodbye Time.” By the way, on a side note, I’d strongly encourage all of you to check out any of the songs listed on this blog – definitely worthwhile listening. Anyway, in addition to Blake’s vocal talent, he’s also displayed the ability to successfully record power ballads and light-hearted, beer-ripping tunes. A lot of artists confine themselves to a single formula which they ride to the top (Taylor Swift, anyone?), but the lasting artists know how to make it all work. Sure, not every one of Blake’s songs is an instant classic, but he has, for over ten years, been one of country music’s most reliable talents. Perhaps not a fool-proof headliner, and I admit, there’s a good chance he’ll never be able to carry a tour, but Blake for your years of consistent, reliable and quality music (and simply for the fact that your dating the ever-saucy Miranda Lambert), this beer is for you.
Thursday, February 25, 2010
Brad Paisley’s “Water” is by no means an emotional masterpiece, it does not explore new ground, and quite frankly, it’s not even in the top three most memorable songs from his latest album. But “Water” can still stir an emotional response. It’s about the simple joy of summer time, of hanging with your buddies by the lake, about kicking back with a few beers in the sunshine. It’s a song that makes you feel content when your driving with the windows down during the summer, cranking up the country tunes and just appreciating the simple things in life. Sometimes country critics get too caught up in what they are supposed to criticize, rather than remembering that a song does not have to be “deep” to be emotionally provocative. I don’t imagine I’ll usually be this harsh, but this really got to me. More examples on this to come. For now, I’m out.
Now, I'd like to formally welcome everyone to Urban Cowboy, what I hope will become an outlet for a different perspective on country music. First, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Mike, I'm a 22 year old paralegal, living and working in the Big Apple. It really is a great time to be living in New York City -- Manhattan has so much to offer for someone in their twenties. Everything, that is, except for a country music fix. You see, I've been a country music aficionado for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Alabama, its really not out of the ordinary. But I grew up in Scarsdale -- about as white-collar and Jewish as a town can come. Not exactly country music central. In fact, we didn't (and still don't) even have a country music radio station. So when I say my appreciation of country music was seen as unique, I mean it.
But that's not to say that New York is lacking a distinct, country persona. In fact, believe it or not, New York City is the biggest country music market in the United States. So why is it then that I can find about 2 bars in Manhattan that label themselves "honkytonks" and finding a live country performance is about as easy as finding a lunch in midtown for under $10? There's no reason it has to be this way, and that's where Urban Cowboy comes in. It's a forum for discussion, a podium from which I can preach about the positives and negatives of the country music industry, and ultimately, an outlet for a northern voice on a largely southern tradition. That's one thing I'd like to be a running theme throughout this blog. Country music is not distinctly southern -- the emotional themes in the music are ones we can all relate to. Listen to "Songs About Me" by Trace Adkins and you'll get the point. Anyway, my hope is that we have some guest writers, recurring segments, interesting posts, truthful and insightful song and album reviews, and interesting topics of discussion. I'm not going to guarantee that this blog follows any set pattern as to its format but we'll see where it goes. And if you some how came across this searching for a 1980 flick starring John Travolta, tell your friends about us -- Urban Cowboy -- serving up country to big apple. Starting......now.