Album Review: Gotta Be Me – Cody Johnson

Writing something about Cody Johnson is long overdue having looked down at my phone so many times to see that a song I was thoroughly enjoying was a Cody Johnson. I decided it made the most sense to consider CJ’s newest album to stay current, etc and expected to find almost exclusively great things to say.  But on a closer listening at just the material off Gotta Be Me, the story is a bit more mixed.  There are some great moments on the album but there are also some wide misses and a number of songs middling about somewhere in between.

Leading off the category of wide misses, Kiss Goodbye starts off unpleasantly with some spoken-word, country-rap type lyrics.  I had brief hopes of redemption after the start of the second verse “I turn off my radio as I turn off your county road/ to pick you up just like I’ve done at least a thousand times/ the gravel underneath these tires/ half mile stretch of ol’ barbed wire”, but this verse didn’t lead anywhere and the rhymes in the song could be seen coming a mile away.  CJ’s vocals are solid, but (thankfully) this song doesn’t come off as authentic for Johnson and my primary takeaway is that, artistically and financially, this song could have been more profitably farmed out to a Brantley Gilbert or Jason Aldean.  Ditto for Billy’s Brother.  We can see the rollicking Ain’t Going Down ‘Til the Sun Comes Up kind of fun CJ is going for here, but bro-country emptiness overwhelms.  I could see this song playing a bit better live.

In the forgettable category, I’d put I Know My Way Back (Clara’s Song) and I Ain’t Going Nowhere Baby.  There’s nothing wrong with these songs, and in the modern pop country realm they stack up favorably, but they are just too cookie-cutter.  I Know My Way sounds like a mash-up between Uncle Kracker (on account of the opening chords) and then I want to say Easton Corbin or Brett Eldredge (I can’t quite put my finger on why).

Somewhere above forgettable but not quite good is Gotta Be Me, the album’s title track, which has plenty of Texas twang and some great harmonica and steel guitar action.  The theme’s a fine one, but the content comes off as superficial (including the cringeworthy rhyme “I had a girl/ her name was Pearl”). Half a Song sounds like a slightly better version of a Blake Shelton song I’ve heard before.  It’s not original and at times the vocals are overproduced, but it does make for easy listening.

In the good category I’d first put Chain Drinkin’, solid primarily in the straightforward simplicity of the song.  Right from the outset the song establishes itself as good old fashioned feel-good, toe-tapping, upbeat and up-tempo country western swing.  And so the song succeeds. Wild as You succeeds for a similar reason: a familiar motif of wild beauty is packaged inside a sweet delivery and taped up with some fitting fiddle, the song doesn’t break any new ground but neither does it try to do too much.  In the same category, Grass Stains, not written by CJ, opens up nicely with some steel guitar and two good verses with lyrics like “This white v-neck that I got on/ as clean as a whistle, bright as a day/ I got new spit shine on my old boots/ starched these wranglers just for you, yesterday”.  But the roll into the first chorus feels contrived.  The choruses themselves bring to mind Paisley’s Ticks, but whereas the tongue-in-cheek chorus deliveries in Ticks allows the listener to play along for some hijinks not meant to be taken seriously, Grass Stains doesn’t display the same self-awareness.  Nevertheless I’d rate the song pretty good especially on account of the pleasantly twangy delivery and upbeat tempo and instrumentation including some solid fiddle.

In the great or near-great category I’d put With You I Am, a nice simple love song.  The authenticity of the lyrics forgives a delivery that is a bit too intentionally smooth and pop country.  The lyrical contrasts of what the narrator isn’t or wasn’t (e.g “I ain’t no Patrick Swayze”, “that guy with the big ol’smile as wide as the Rio Grande”) paired with the deceptively simple title lyric, towards the end with the right amount of electric guitar to match comes together for a very good song. Every Scar Has a Story is another substantive contribution off the album.  The song evokes and maintains a cowboy grittiness while tackling the topic of emotional scars from a love lost.  I like the contrast of the physical hurts with the emotional, and I like that the nature and timing of the love lost is not made explicit because it absolutely doesn’t need to be.  It doesn’t matter the details of the loss, we’re more concerned with the fact of the scar and the lingering hurt and the nostalgic lyrics and tone of delivery almost summon up that these details are omitted because they are too painful and are trying to be forgot. Walk Away is a great song too, notably co-written by Randy Rogers – the purveyor of so much awesome and original material.  Walk Away is an original spin on the timeless hard times intersection of love and cheating with the narrator sitting down on a bar stool next to his love’s cheater in crime and addressing the ballad to him, there being no ambiguity that the narrator is prepared to give his love a second chance.  There’s no monkey business around the instrumentals or the vocals, the lyrics don’t try to overdeliver and we’re just left with a wonderfully pure song.  Lastly, The Only One I Know (Cowboy Life) is my favorite song off the album.  It’s a traditional cowboy song that favorably recalls the best of George Strait or Casey Donahew Band, and the sentimental, nostalgic lyrics are original and heartfeltly delivered.

Overall I think the album is a great effort and it’s awesome to see this independent label album make it to No. 2 on the country charts and With You I Am break into the top 50. I don’t begrudge the desire for mainstream success, but as with this album I think Johnson can get there while keeping at least one tip-toe in Texas country territory.  This album doesn’t ooze Texas country like an album by Pat Green or CDB does, but the instrumentation and CJ’s authentic cowboy content does enough.  While the nods to or outright deviations into bro-country are not at all flattering, Johnson clearly has so much talent and really shines as a cowboy troubadour with the songs that are simple yet substantive.

The Early Years of Toby Keith

Listening to Pandora stations shuffled off Turnpike Troubadours and Spotify suggestions based on a history centered around artists like Pat Green and Reckless Kelly, Toby Keith songs don’t come on very often. But recently when one did, I was reminded that some of Keith’s material is actually pretty good.  There’s a lot of Keith material to wade through, so here and for starters I’ll just focus on the period between 1993’s Toby Keith and 1999’s How Do You Like Me Now.  These albums I think bookend a distinct period in TK’s career that I’ll call the Early Years.

His eponymous first album included Should’ve Been a Cowboy and Wish I Didn’t Know Now, which are the two songs I’d label great off that album, and two of three great songs from the Early Years. Cowboy is a nostalgic romp through an idealized cowboy life replete with references to cowboys in American history, movies and music culture.  Wish I Didn’t is a heartbreak love song recounting Keith’s discovery of his girlfriend’s cheating and wishing nostalgically that they could start over together or at least that he could’ve continued in his pre-discovery ignorance.  Keith wrote both songs, and both are great for me because they’re centered around classic themes with relatively novel but not over-worked lyrics and deliveries that are believable and true to the style that Keith establishes in this album and carries forward over at least the next handful of albums.

Bookending the Early Years is How Do You Like Me Now, which was Keith’s breakout album and a signal of a different career direction, with Country Comes to Town, How Do You Like Me Now (the third great song from the Early Years) and the underrated Blue Bedroom which wasn’t released as a single. HDYLMN is an upbeat and fun song with a bit of cheek.  It’s a celebration of the narrator making it in the country business, looking back on the crush of his younger years who wouldn’t give him the time and contrasting this celebration with the less fortunate path that crush went down.  In this song (as a this point in his career) TK’s made it.  He’s in your ear on the radio as he turns his glance back and asks how you like him now, you as spurning girl and directed perhaps at the audience as well.

In between Toby Keith and HDYLMN there was some material that was solid, fine and OK and plenty that was forgettable. Off Boomtown I’d put You Ain’t Much Fun in the good category, it’s funny and pretty original.  And I’d put Who’s That Man in the fine category.  Blue Moon was mostly forgettable, and Dream Walkin’ redeemed with a couple good songs, including I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying – written by Sting but delivered well by Keith – and the title track Dream Walkin’ whose vocals were extremely similar (in a good way) to Wish I Didn’t Know Now and whose lyrics were nice.

In the Early Years, TK was doing very well indeed. Four of his first five albums went platinum and his second four albums all cracked the Top 10 country charts, to be sure quite a feat for a new artist.  He also charted four number one singles, including the first release off Toby Keith Should’ve Been a Cowboy and the title track to HDYLMN, as well as 10 additional singles in the Top 10.  But chart success wasn’t automatic, as it would seemingly become in the Keith’s next period which I’ll call the Swagger Years.  Up until How Do You Like Me Now and Country Comes to Town, love was the predominant theme of Keith’s songs.  Most especially love songs with cheating, leaving, making mistakes, being replaced by another man, feelings of melancholy and loss, desperate, striving love and similar types of heartbreak and hard times love songs.  The minimal indications of vapid broiness in a few Early Years songs were more than offset by a broader corpus of thematically consistent songs with heartfelt lyrics, which it should certainly be noted were written or co-written in significant majority by Keith.  The next period, the Swagger Years, produced some of Keith’s best songs, but some questionable, wide misses too.

Album Highlights: Home – Pat Green

Down here in Texas, Houston en route to Austin, I think it’s only proper to offer up some thoughts on Pat F. Green. It’s going on a decade since I drove down from New Hampshire to Washington, D.C. to see PFG for the first time, and was surely the sole wearer of a NY Mets hat in a town that just a few years before had gotten their own baseball team back and in a crowd filled with Texas ex pats. At the time that was about the farthest north Green ventured, but clearly had sights set on bigger things. It was also about that time that I (apparently) introduced my good friend, who I’ll be travelling to Austin with shortly, to Pat Green and so, Pat, my apologies for his incessant screams at your concerts for Down to the River. At that DC show Green played Let Me, introducing it as a song he’d not yet released and which would eventually be the first single off his What I’m For album. He’s come a long way Home.


Life Good as It Can Be is one of my favorite tracks on the new album. It feels exactly like the kind of song Pat Green should be singing at this stage of his career, like the song says a “take it easy baby, if it’s easy take it twice” kind of song. The lyrics feature a nice blend of sober reflection and just a hint of PFG’s old rowdiness, the tempo is upbeat and energizing but not trying to be pop country and the vocals seem true to a relaxed and contemplative Green, not artificially smoothed out. Letting his guitar put the cash in his car and drinking all the beers in Milwaukee gesture to the Pat Green material of old – Here We Go, George’s Bar, etc – but the song ultimately goes in a different route, reflection over rebellion:

Well I never forgot what my daddy told me
said I waited too long son I’ll never break free
there’s gotta be more boy to being alive
then minimum wage every day til you die

I can’t say I’m a huge fan of Girls From Texas, but because this song’s been pretty well received – particularly in concert – and was released as Home’s first single, it deserves mention. The song doesn’t do it for me since the lyrics are a bit cliché and seem too concerned with trying to find words that rhyme rather than telling a story or fleshing out any meat to the song. But on the other hand, the shout outs to so many states is great – how many times do states like New York and Minnesota get mentioned in country songs after all?! And the lullaby tempo and instrumentals are nice and, together with the inclusion of Lyle Lovett, are a clear signal in this first single of what to expect from the remainder of album (i.e. Texas country music).

Day One was Home’s second released single and a fantastic song that recalls the greatness of hits like Don’t Break My Heart Again. In songs like this we hear PFG vocals that convey so much emotion, raw and real, not manufactured. Combined with the strong lyrics that aren’t exactly novel but are combined in a clever way and are overwhelmingly thoughtful and sincere, the vocals take the listener reeling along with the grieving Green through the classic combination of love and hard times, with a bit of nostalgia thrown in.

In addition to the highlights above, there are a number of other strong tracks on the album, in particular Home and I’ll Take This House. And in the end Home is a more mature, grown up Pat Green, which is altogether fitting and welcome: Home was released nearly two decades after Green’s first live album and so the album, called after and representing a return to roots, is fittingly less rowdy and freewheeling and more analytical and reflective. Green has matured as singer and songwriter, and many of his fans have grown up a bit too. But even more important than the particulars of the album is the fact that the extremely talented Pat Green is once again releasing new, original music – With PFG back on the scene, Texas country music fans have a lot to look forward to!

Album Review: All Night Party – Casey Donahew Band

Casey Donahew Band’s newest album – All Night Party – is strong.

As personal background I’ve been fortunate enough to see Casey Donahew Band at NYC’s Texas Independence Day concert the past couple of years and they’ve been awesome. They – and Randy Rogers Band, who is also strong in concert – have stolen the show with the energy and enthusiasm of their performances.

This album seems to mark a bit of shift in CDB’s approach to more of a mainstream sound, but not a shift that is wholly unwelcome, or maybe if unwelcome is the wrong word, not begrudged and definitely not disappointing. Taken together the album features a diverse blend of party songs and cowboy tunes that showcase themes of love, raisin’ hell and nostalgia, featuring the lyrical originality that for me makes CDB a true standout. This is a Texas country album – and a very good one.

Kiss Me is a song that I could see receiving significant radio play and hitting the Billboard charts. Aside from the Keith Urbanesque intro, this song strikes a great balance of vintage CDB emotion and realness. The lyrics are not overwhelmingly original but the sincerity of the delivery and the intensity of the build up, starting with the bridge into the first chorus and particularly through the second chorus, make this a great song.

Country Song has a catchy chorus with wonderful lyrics that the listener can empathize with, in general and with reference to CDB in particular, along with a nice blend of nostalgia and rowdiness. Each metaphor that CDB employs seems better than the next, “beat up truck on an old dirt road”, “that first kiss when you’re holding on tight/ when two boys love one girl and you know they’re gonna fight”, “high school rebel pretending that he’s strong” in each stanza piling one on top of the other lending credence to the increasingly impassioned chorus where we see CDB performing on stage. Just like a good country song, the metaphors throughout this song, including where we see CDB performing on a stage too small, are imbued with emotional complexity and originality.

College Years is a bit of an empty song in my book – the generic, cliche lyrics fail to summon the nostalgia I think the song intends to evoke to hearken back to college and the inclusion of Love and Theft doesn’t add anything. Kip Moore is fine singer and songwriter, but his name popped into my head in an unflattering capacity when listening to this song, and I was surprised at the coincidence but not the fact of seeing his name on the songwriting credits.

What Cowboys Do is the album’s first cowboy song, a low-tempo ballad that, while not a feature of the album is certainly a solid song, the lyrics and emotion offset well by what sounds like an electric violin, in particular with lyrics like “I’m strong as a freight train and just as steady” allowing Donahew to showcase the kind of smooth, strong vocals that make him a great singer of not only upbeat Texas country rock songs but also emotional ballads.

The album features a number of party songs, including Feels This Right and Going Down Tonight, both upbeat, fun, “I’m not trying to live a love song tonight” kinds of songs. These songs incorporate themes that are prevalent in today’s bro-country movement, but in stark contrast to most bro-country songs when Donahew sings lines like “I like trucks and I love beer”, “I’m looking for a bonfire and some pasture land”, “I’m pouring moonshine shots into Dixie cups”, “I lost my keys and can’t find my phone/ everybody’s passed out so I party alone” we can hop on board because these lines are delivered in an original context that pairs nicely with the simplicity of these lyrics and a sincerity that makes the lyrics believable. Although I don’t think these songs are the best on the album, the blend of popular bro-country themes, Hank Jr. rowdiness and CDB originality make me confident that CDB will find larger commercial success.

That’s Why We Ride, the first song I’d heard off the new album, is a catchy cowboy tune that takes me right back to CDB gold like Stockyards. The lyrics and subject matter of this song perfectly match the tempo, highlighted by some restrained electric guitar that I can see being broken out into its fully glory in concert, creating a powerful, fun and passionate song that just makes me want to get out onto the highway and throw the hammer down. For me this song comes in at #2 on this album between #1 Country Song and #3 White Trash Bay.

Like College Years, I was similarly not surprised to see That Got The Girl was not a Casey Donahew song, the island-inspired sound, easy chorus and simplistic lyrics sound more similar to Kenny Chesney’s more recent albums than a CDB original, but in contrast to College Years this made for fine listening.

Josie Escalido – a nice old timey feel, Texican-inspired song, with thoughtful lyrics

White Trash Bay is wonderfully CDB, very much in the mold of White Trash Story, White Trash Story – II, Double-Wide Dream, etc. This song is infused with the CDB sense of fun and humor that shines through so strongly in Donahew’s original lyrics. It’s exactly songs like this that serve as a reminder – there are only a handful of artists on the same level as CDB in terms of creativity. This feel-good song will enter the CDB pantheon of great white trash-themed songs.