Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Perfect Up-Tempo Country Song

As I mentioned the other day, it was amidst the heavy turbulence above JFK that I got the idea to write an article about what I believe to be the most important components in crafting a country song. As I considered it some more, I realized that this really needed to be broken down into two separate posts -- up-tempo and ballad -- as both genres of song require separate building blocks. Today I'm going to tackle the up-tempo, classic rocking single, concert-style song -- the go-to song for an artist to close out a show or open an album. Early next week, we'll take a look at the ballad. Let's start from the beginning...

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

4 Songs: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Sorry to all my avid readers out there for the long layoff -- I was on vacation and haven't had much time to sit down and write. While I was on the plane -- I believe it was somewhere during our mid-air, turbulence filled delay -- I had a great idea for an piece I'll put up later this week, but for now I'd like to offer my thoughts on 4 songs, all of which are either currently or were recently featured on Country Top 40.

"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

Three Classic (and Ridiculous) Country Songs You've Probably Never Heard Of

I've been wanting to write a piece like this for a while, but couldn't figure out the three songs I wanted to feature. First allow me to expound a bit on the progression of country music -- namely the period during the mid-eighties to mid-nineties. During this interesting time in country music's history, we saw the rise of a number of legendary artists like George Strait, Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks. The music they were producing was at times profound, at times overly simple, and, quite frankly, at times just downright funny and light-hearted. The commercial success a number of these songs received was extraordinarily time specific -- nearly ten years after their production, there was virtually no chance country radio would even go near such a song. And today the situation remains the same -- it seems the time of this tongue-in-cheek brand of country, infused with a classic honkytonk swing rhythm, has officially ended. So today we pay tribute to three songs which best exemplify this brand of country song (in no particular order).

"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

Ryan Bingham Strikes Gold at Oscars, Earns Coveted Beer of the Week from Urban Cowboy

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

The Top 5 Hottest Women in Country Music

Hey everybody, sorry for the lack of posting over the last day and a half. Things have been real busy at work and I haven't gotten much time to sit down and think of a great topic. But inspired by a friend's suggestion, I have in fact stumbled on such a topic -- today I present the top 5 hottest women in country music...In descending order.

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

"The House That Built Me" Falls Apart

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.