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

Friday, August 5, 2011

Song of the Day

Alright, I want to keep this short since A) I don’t want it to sound like every other article ever written about the guy (and there have been many) and B) I’m writing this on the train on my way back from the dentist (always a pleasure). Seriously though, is this guy ever going to slow down? With more hits than basically everyone else in the business combined, George Strait is truly timeless. The guy’s been producing hit song after hit song for the better part of thirty years, and not only are the songs consistently of a high quality, but the dude even looks the same as he did thirty years ago. After countless records, tours and even a few forays into acting, George Strait is still the humble Texan he was when he first struck gold with “Fool Hearted Memory” back in 1982. Even more remarkably, his format for success has barely changed: the songs Strait records now sound the same as the ones he was choosing at the beginning of his career. He’s one of the few, if not the only artist, who hasn’t had to change his style to account for changing trends and tastes. Country radio will play a George Strait song no matter how old it sounds, but that’s the beauty of it – it’s a journey back to another era, when country songs were generally tongue-in-cheek, catchy tunes that all adhered to the same basic musical format. It’s simple, it’s easy, but it sure as hell works.

If you don’t believe me, listen to the song below. If you didn’t know it was released in the past few weeks, you’d swear it was from the early nineties, and yet, I have no doubt it will be a #1 hit. I promise. It’s a sure thing. Don’t even bother questioning it – just listen and enjoy…

Song of the Day – George Strait – “Here for a Good Time”

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Eric Church – Chief

Chief marks Eric Church’s third album release and stands as a testament to the continued growth and development of one of country music’s brightest young talents. Church received much critical acclaim over the last few years for his first two albums, which included a handful of hit songs, but none that charted higher than #10 on Billboard’s Country Chart. Well, the winds are a changing my friends because it seems like the folks at Billboard and country fans in general are finally embracing Church’s rough-and-tumble style. Chief, released in late July, debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 (for those of you who don’t know, this is all artists – not simply country). It’s a major credit to Church’s promise as a future headliner, and he certainly has the talent to back it up. A singer-songwriter, Church has never been one to shy away from some controversial (to say the least) topics. Most notably, his song “Lightning” from the Sinners Like Me album tells the tale of a prisoner’s final moments before “riding the lightning” from the perspective of a...um…murderer. It’s a brave and moving song, and although predictably it received little attention from country radio, it’s more proof that Church A) isn’t afraid to tackle tough subjects other artists might shy away from and B) really doesn’t give a damn about what is or is not popular with country radio. Slightly controversial and outspoken, poignant and hard-rocking, Church is on a roll. Anyway, some thoughts on Chief:

  • Overall, the album is extremely up-tempo, which is a nice change from some of Church’s earlier releases. I think it was a conscious decision and I think the album is better off for it. There’s no doubt Church can kill a ballad, but he really excels with the rock-infused songs that make up the majority of this album.
  • “Homeboy” was the debut single release from this album, and it’s a very interesting song to say the least. Completely different than anything out there on the radio right now and another tougher topic (the song recounts the story of two brothers who followed two very different paths). It’s heart-felt and the driving melody works great for Church. Kills it when the music cuts out in the bridge.
  • “Country Music Jesus,” despite receiving some airplay, is largely forgettable. The instrumentals are too loud in the chorus and drown out the vocals. Went a little overboard with the rock feel in the background. Lyrics are good nonetheless. “Drink in my Hand” also falls in the forgettable category. The tune is very cliché, lyrics are pretty shallow, and overall, it just sounds too generic.
  • “Hungover and Hard Up” is a complete disaster. The song has no direction, and I honestly don’t have a great idea of the story he’s attempting to tell here. The falsetto parts are weak and seem out of place. It looks like the song finally finds itself in the lead-up to the chorus (after the falsetto part – “Get on down the highway…”), but then it veers off course again.

(All business)

  • Now for the good: “Jack Daniels” is right in Church’s wheelhouse and it’s a format we’ve seen before on earlier albums (it’s very similar to “Leave my Willie Alone” from Carolina). It’s a great example of keeping things simple – a few guitars, an informal feel (you can hear the guys joking around in the background), and a simple, tried-and-true guitar riff. It’s almost as if they were just messing around after recording one day. It’ll never get any airplay but its enjoyable nonetheless.
  • Aside from “Homeboy,” which has already peaked at #13 on the country charts, the two other songs that stand to be hits on this album are “Keep On” and “Springsteen.” Lets start with the latter. I’m not a huge fan of artists offering songs as tributes to other artists – it fails about 10 times for every one time it works – but Church manages to pull it off here. It’s constructed in the “hit” format if you will. You can tell the producers decided this was going to be one of the singles from this album and one of their best shots at getting some serious airplay. Despite the Springsteen references, the lyrics are, unexpectedly, very good and the song is really catchy. It feels a little similar to Tim McGraw’s “Red Rag Top,” but Church makes it his own. I give this a 6/10 shot at being a hit. “Keep On” couldn’t be more different than “Springsteen.” With aggressive, heavily-rock infused instrumentals, the song displays both great lyrics and Church’s vocal range. The tune is well-worn and certainly nothing new, but Church basically jumps up an octave when he hits the chorus. The verses test the lower limits of his range and the chorus pushes the upper, and there’s nothing we like more at Urban Cowboy ™ than artists pushing their vocal limits. I give this a 6.5/10 chance at being a hit, just because it’s a little too “rock-esque” and short to be a major hit, but its great nonetheless

Overall, an excellent effort by Church who’s star is certainly on the rise.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What to Make of Scotty McCreery?

American Idol and country music. Country music and American Idol. Two things that seemingly shouldn't go well together, but, for one reason or another, have enjoyed a remarkably successful symbiotic relationship since the show debuted a decade (I know, I know...make anyone feel old?) ago. Country artists and a vast majority of country fans routinely lament the crossover between pop and country, and yet, how do we explain a show essentially searching for America's next big pop star producing a number of viable country artists and one superstar? Let's take a quick look at AI's notable country alumni: Josh Gracin (8 country top 40 hits), Bucky Covington (5 country top 40 hits), Kellie Pickler (8 country top 40 hits), and of course, Carrie Underwood (too many awards to list). In addition, we've recently seen Kelly Clarkson, America's original Idol, branch out into country music with a hit duet with Jason Aldean ("Don't You Wanna Stay"). Obviously, the roots between AI and country music run deep, and so we're left to ponder the future of American Idol's first country winner since Carrie Underwood, Scotty McCreery.

First, a brief recap of McCreery's American Idol run for those who don't watch the show. A 16-year-old from North Carolina, McCreery possesses a beautiful, clear baritone, very similar to Josh Turner. Of course its no surprise then that McCreery chose Turner's "Your Man" for his audition followed by a brief cover of Travis Tritt's "Put Some Drive in Your Country." Right away McCreery established three important things: 1) His voice was starkly different than everyone else on the show, 2) He had the range to tackle a wide variety of songs (in fact, in many ways it was when McCreery went to his upper range that he was most successful), and 3) He had a firm grasp of his niche on the show. After his initial audition, McCreery hit a few more good country covers but ultimately left something to be desired. He seemed to shy away from some of the songs that would have been obvious home-runs for him -- songs by Randy Travis, Johnny Cash, and some of the other great country baritones. Even during "Elvis" week, McCreery passed up the obvious choices for "That's All Right," a song that did little to display his range. It was utterly confounding that McCreery left all these songs in the closet, opting again and again for light-weight tunes, while displaying a penchant for over-the-top facial expressions during the performance.

(Yep, I'm completely hammered right now.)

His final performance (and debut single), "I Love You This Big," defies all available adjectives -- honestly, there are now words that can accurately sum up how poor this song is. The lyrics are a joke and the production is incredibly boring. The song itself is virtually unlistenable. Here you have the opportunity, on the most watched episode of the season, with an audience of millions and millions of viewers, to display one of the most promising talents ever to pass through the show and this is the song they chose? I couldn't believe it then and I can't believe it now.

So we're left to consider where Scotty McCreery goes from here. The song itself has sold well (more a credit to Scotty's strong teenage-girl following and their mastery of Itunes than the song's actual quality), but has, unsurprisingly, petered out on its rise up the country charts. Now, McCreery heads out on the American Idol tour, but when he returns, he'll likely continue work on his debut album, one that is remarkably important to his place in country music and his future viability as a country artist. Already country radio has scoffed at Scotty's credibility as a true country artist (but honestly, how often do they get it right? Carrie Underwood followed the same path and what was her debut single again? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? That's right, it was "Inside Your Heaven," another piece of unlistenable garbage that had zero impact on her future as a country star.) The most important thing Scotty can take from Carrie's success (and they are not as different as you might suspect -- both were young, runaway, winners with lots of vocal talent who embraced their country roots from the very first audition) is a willingness to chart your own course and break from the American Idol safety net. The show likes to market its own talent -- its the reason the winner traditionally received a record deal with a major label -- and for that reason, its easy to stay within the comforts provided by the American Idol team from start to finish (writers, producers, managers, etc.) Underwood shunned the push towards pop (although she has released many, many crossover hits) and instead pumped out hit after country hit which showcased her vocal talent and wowed country purists to the point that she is now the undisputed leading lady in country music. Scotty has similar ability -- his unique voice alone places him in elite and unique company -- and his age gives him an expanded audience to work with. McCreery would be wise to release a debut album heavy on the country, light on the pop, full of booming baritone ballads, a few up-tempos to showcase his range and maybe one or two collaborations with a Josh Turner or a Randy Travis. He's got the talent to be a major player for years, but the key here for McCreery is not to over think it, stick to your country roots, and for God's sakes, lay off the booze.