Some Belated Thoughts on the 2017 CMAs

One of these days I’d love to make it to the CMAs and even if the 51st has been sitting on my DVR for a few weeks now I’ve been looking forward to watching on TV. The show’s about more than just the music that actually takes home the awards (some thoughts on last year’s CMAs here). I enjoy all the country stars taking turns performing – seeing them transition from their seated roles with family/spouse to performing up on stage and then back again makes them more interestingly human. And I like seeing these country performers recognize each other, especially when everyone in the audience is on the same page, singing along to a country classic – like Tulsa Time or Don’t Rock the Jukebox, a couple of 2017’s examples. I also like seeing great songwriters get recognized for their critical role in making country music.

In terms of live performances, one of the high points for me of this year’s show was Eddie Montgomery, Rascal Flatts and Dierks (H/T to him for getting in on this great performance) singing My Town in tribute to the departed Troy Gentry. She Couldn’t Change Me was among my first favorite country songs and there have been so many MG song I’ve loved over the years and Gentry will definitely be missed. I was surprised at how much I liked No Such Thing As a Broken Heart by Old Dominion, which made it onto my post-CMA Spotify playlist for further consideration. Luke Bryan’s performance and T-Swift’s no-show were lows.

Looking at some of the awards, Little Big Town was a poor choice for Vocal Group of the Year – especially stacking up against Rascal Flatts and ZBB, either of which should have handily beat them out. I suppose I should refresh my familiarity with LBT to understand why they keep winning awards/why people like them. I also didn’t care for the choice of Miranda Lambert as Female Vocalist of the Year. If ever Carrie or Reba are in contention I can’t see how the award goes to someone else, unless perhaps Jennifer Nettles or Martina McBride are involved.

One of the winners I actually felt pretty good about was Jon Pardi for New Artist of the Year. I’m not quite sure how the CMA determines who’s new since I remember listening to Missin’ You Crazy and Up All Night driving around in my good old Jeep in 2012-13 (especially since the radio stations were pushing his songs real hard then) but at least, of the folks nominated, I think he was the best choice. Pardi actually (co-)writes most of his songs and strikes a pretty good balance between Billboard pop country, traditional country and country rock. I was also pleased and surprised to see Jason Isbell’s name come up via nomination for Album of the Year even if he didn’t get the award. This nomination also led indirectly to my being aware that there’s a thing called the Americana Music Association with its own awards show which I’ll definitely need to check out.

Inductees into the CMHOF this year were strong. Alan Jackson is one of my absolute favorites – and based on live reactions clearly a favorite too of the CMA crowd – a rock solid performer who seems to increasingly represent the backbone of traditional contemporary country. And Jerry Reed with the classic East Bound and Down and Don Schlitz who wrote Forever and Ever, Amen, Deeper Than the Holler, The Gambler and too many other great songs to name.

Cheers to a fine show. As they say: next year in Nashville!

Song Analysis: EYB’s Saltwater Gospel

In the interests of not burying the lede: I don’t have a problem with Saltwater Gospel, but I’m not crazy about it. I don’t think it stacks up against some of EYB’s very high quality songs, but at the same time it comes across much better performed by them than it would have if the song had gone to one of the pop-country regulars.

Eli Young Band has been one of my favorite groups for a long time. I remember seeing them way back when they were an opener at Texas Independence Day in NYC all the way up to what I think is the most recent time I’ve seen them: playing at the Georgia Dome with ZBB and Kenny Chesney. They’ve always deserved (and craved) a wider audience and it was awesome to see them get just that with Even If It Breaks Your Heart and Crazy Girl. (They’re also schedule to play in November at Brooklyn Bowl – more about that in a future post.)

My first reaction to hearing Saltwater Gospel was that it felt like a Florida Georgia Line song. And sure enough EYB didn’t write the song and the songwriters – Ashley Gorley, Nicolle Galyon and Ross Copperman – initially seemed to have folks like Kenny and Jake Owen in mind for the song. I’ll save for another day the so interesting topic of commercial songwriting and an exposition on singing/ performing versus singer-songwriting, but suffice it for now to say that there’s a whole to be said for folks performing their own material or, in the absence of that, at least only recording other folks’ songs that are authentic expressions of the singer’s own thoughts and feelings.

The articles I’ve read about SG take great pains to point out that, in their view, this isn’t just another “beach song”. That’s right in the sense that the song isn’t about loading your truck up with Bud lights, picking up some girls in swimsuits and going down to the beach to party. The other point the articles seem to focus on is that the authors have professed that they don’t want the song to be listened to as a diminution of the importance of actual church-going. I didn’t interpret the song that way (though I don’t think the music video helps) and any bone to pick I have with the song isn’t on that account.

Saltwater Gospel does have a nice point. It is definitely awe-inspiring to stand at the edge of the ocean and feel the power and majesty of what God created. Listening to the song more casually the first few times (i.e. at the gymnasium and not focusing so intently on the lyrics) I interpreted the song as a quasi-baptism song, with the singers relationship with God consummated via the ocean standing in for the formal religious rite. On closer listen, I think this is reading too much into the lyrics, and maybe this would have been too far anyway, but the nice point of feeling the awesomeness of God’s ocean still stands. In a world where there’s an embarrassment or reluctance, if not outright cynicism, towards declaring reverence for something , it’s no small feat to identify something as meaningful and stand behind it.

For me, this is the song’s success: the recognition of this awesomeness. I don’t think the song’s lyrics are so adept at developing this initial recognition – the Amens and “I’m in heaven watching all these waves roll in” feel ham-handed, although I prefer and like the lyrics of “When I’m lost I know where to get found again” and especially “Yeah, I got all the proof I need.  And it sure makes me believe” the latter of which I think really encapsulates the point of the song. Overall my take-away is that the song doesn’t feel much like EYB but despite some pop-country trappings, has something original and meaningful at its core that appeals.

Songs for the Trump Era: Shuttin’ Detroit Down

Off John Rich’s Son of a Preacher Man album and co-written by Rich and John Anderson (a great songwriter), Shuttin’ Detroit Down is a song I can’t help but think would make a marvelous addition to Pres. Trump’s campaign trail playlist. It’s a pop-country song of stark populist contrasts that self-consciously screams heartland, and though a pre-Trump bailout-era 2009 song, it feels pretty darn relevant today.

The song focuses on the contrast between the hard-working and self-reliant real world folks against the D.C. bailout boss man jet-setting crowd. The people getting their hands dirty building real things and working hard to improve their lot versus the entitled city-dwellers who sell “make-believe” and game the political system to their advantage on the backs of working folks. SDD elides over the fact that it was the auto-industry too, and not just big banks, that received bailouts and perhaps, as one of the reviews of the song I read suggests, ventures a bit too far into class warfare in seeming not to draw a distinction between success as a result of hard work versus profiting at others’ expense. But the general contrast, in any event, is a powerful one, with the unfairness of farmers auctioning ground and hard-working auto-workers left with nothing while others pull the strings of big government for personal profit.

The highlights of the song are the verses about the narrator’s dad, first instilling in the narrator a sense of fairness, work ethic and individual responsibility. Then as a contrast to these ideas, the people “losing billions” and coming to folks like his dad to get rescued and “Well, pardon me if I don’t shed a tear / they’re selling make believe and we don’t buy that here”. And finally the unfairness in his father, towards the end of his career, with callouses on his hands not having nearly enough to show for his years of labor. These lines make the themes of the song personal and focus the listener’s attention on the song’s protest: that there really is something wrong going on here and it’s affecting real people’s lives.

The instrumentals of the song hit SDD’s themes home perfectly, and combine with the only average lyrics to make this a good song. To begin with, the background piano, drums and a bit of electric guitar set the mood and jump in at the right places to make the song not one of despair, but rather as a “fightin’ mad” protest song. The acoustic guitar, particularly prominent at the start of the song, and the crying fiddle and steel guitar – instruments that sound like the heartland feels – add to the song’s purpose: the protest that things are backwards and “what the hell is going on around here!”

Overall the song is a success. Despite lyrics that are hit or miss and could have done a bit better at zoning in on the problem, the song still manages strikes a real chord, especially through the great melody and instrumentals, in focusing attention on the plight of hard-working folks with good values with a strong measure of deserved indignation.

Let’s Burn a Country Music CD

Folks who’ve heard a bit of country here and there and are looking to get a little more involved have often asked me for country recommendations. I never got the chance to swap vinyls but I do remember sharing cassette tapes and then, the crown-jewel of childhood music sharing, mixed compact discs. There’s still something wonderful about a burned CD mix, especially with the song titles written in sharpie on the front of the CD. In the spirit of putting together a mixed CD for you dear reader and friend, I thought I’d share what I would now put onto a mixed CD as a country music primer.

At least for the CDs I’d make as a kid, you could typically get 22 or so songs to fit on there, so that’s the list I’ve put together. By way of qualification, I don’t mean to suggest that I think the below songs are the best or even my favorite 22. This isn’t the country mix I’d choose if stranded on a desert island with only my boom box and one CD. And neither is this a listing of the songs I think represent the country music canon. Rather this is intended to serve as an introductory flight of country songs – a tasting of different eras and styles, so a new listener can wet their beak. It’s for this reason I’ve intentionally omitted certain artists or songs, especially if they are more well-known or contemporary. For example, it’s hard to put together a list like this and not include a song like The Devil Went Down to Georgia or anything by Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks or Dolly Parton. Similarly, if we were (virtually) doing one of those data CDs you could get more songs on, I would surely have put something by Carrie Underwood, Patsy Cline, Reba, Hank Jr., and Tim McGraw on here. But anyway I’ve tried in my selections to put together a mix that reflects at least some songs and artists folks might not be familiar with already together with some classics, so a listener can decide what they like best and what country roads they’d like to further explore.*

1. Mama Tried – Merle Haggard
2. L.A. Freeway – Guy Clark
3. Pancho and Lefty – Townes Van Zandt
4. Lost Highway – Hank Williams Sr.
5. Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain – Willie Nelson
6. Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man – Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn
7. Forever and Ever, Amen – Randy Travis
8. Guitars, Cadillacs – Dwight Yoakam
9. Independence Day – Martina McBride
10. Me and Bobby McGee – Kris Kristofferson
11. Mountain Music – Alabama
12. Stand By Your Man – Tammy Wynette
13. Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’ – Charley Pride
14. Copperhead Road – Steve Earle
15. Wide Open Spaces – Dixie Chicks
16. He Stopped Loving Her Today – George Jones
17. Chattahoochee – Alan Jackson
18. I Can Still Make Cheyenne – George Strait
19. The Road Goes on Forever – Robert Earl Keen
20. This Time Around – Randy Rogers Band
21. Texas on My Mind – Pat Green
22. Colder Weather – Zac Brown Band

*This virtual CD is also presented with apologies, since I’ve not given credit to the songwriters or original recording artists in some cases, and instead I’ve listed the singers whose rendition I’d like to be on our CD.

Baseball & Country Music: Part 2 – Country All-Stars

There are some baseball players with truly great taste in country music, and there are also some truly great players with a taste for country. And then of course there are those most special of cases where the two come together.  My listings below of players and their associated songs do not necessarily represent current music choices.  In some cases it was more fun to look at songs players have chosen within the last couple of years, including when there was a real gem a year or two ago but their more current choice was less exciting.  These listings necessarily reflect my imperfect information, in many cases drawn from local sports reporting, and if I’ve misstated any player’s preferences I’d be happy to talk the confusion out over a game of catch.

Player performance combined with choosing country songs that align with my music preferences are the main drivers of the rankings below. Also weighing in were my feelings on what would be an appropriately motivating walk-up song and my desire to present more fun examples of player music choices which resulted in my not duplicating players across the various lists.  For example, Dillon Gee’s choice of an RRB song would clearly have put him towards the top of Players Who Like Great Modern Country, but his incongruous other choice of Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang made him a more fun entry onto the weird combos list.  These rankings also evidence my favorable disposition towards more unique music choices (e.g. God’s Gonna Cut You Down is an awesome and intimidating song for a dominant relief pitcher, but it loses a little something each additional guy that picks the song).  On the flip side I’ve given short shrift to even great players who like relatively common artists or songs.

5 Elite Players Who Like Country:

5. Buster Posey – Hell on Wheels (Brantley Gilbert)
4. John Lester – I Use What I Got; Gonna Know We Were Here (Aldean)
3. Corey Seager – U Turn (Chase Rice); Night’s on Fire (David Nail)
2. Zack Greinke – Runnin’ Outta Moonlight (Randy Houser); Anywhere With You (Jake Owen)
1. Kyle Seager – Life is a Highway (Rascal Flatts cover); Night’s on Fire (David Nail); Wild Ones (Kip Moore)

Top 8 Players Who Like Great Modern Country:

8. John Danks – Should’ve Been a Cowboy (Toby Keith)
7. Mark Reynolds – Country Boy (Aaron Lewis); Barefoot Bluejean Night (Jake Owen); Cruise (FGL)
6. Josh Osich – Right Where I Need to Be (Gary Allen); American Outlaws (Whiskey Meyers)
5. Dan Uggla, Colin Rea – Homegrown (ZBB)
4. Aaron Hill – Knee Deep (ZBB plus Jimmy Buffett); It’s a Great Day To Be Alive (Travis Tritt)
3. Bryan Flynn – Freight Train (Aaron Watson)
2. Charlie Morton – Gin, Smoke, Lies (Turnpike Troubadours); Palmetto Rose (Jason Isbell
1. Brock Holt – Ragged as the Road (Reckless Kelley), My Hometown (Charlie Robison), Dance Her Home (Cody Johnson) [Editor’s Note: Mr. Holt’s music choices, only some of which are listed here, evidence fine, fine taste indeed. And he’s a heck of a ballplayer.]

Top 10 Players Who Like Great Classic Country:

10. Cody Allen – God’s Gonna Cut You Down (Cash); Outsiders (Church)
9. Wade Miley – Thank God I’m a Country Boy (John Denver), Backwoods (Justin Moore)
8. Kevin Gregg – A Country Boy Can Survive (Hank Jr.)
7. Alex Wilson – Snake Farm (Ray Wylie Hubbard)
6. Daniel Mengden – Long-Haired Country Boy (Charlie Daniels)
5. David Robertson, Kendall Graveman – Sweet Home Alabama (Skynyrd)
4. Lucas Harrell – When the Man Comes Around (Johnny Cash)
3. Devin Mesoraco – Fishin’ in the Dark (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band)
2. David Ross – Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler) (Alabama)
1. Mark Lowe, Adam LaRoche – Copperhead Road (Steve Earle)

Top 7 Elite Baseball Players Who Like Great Country:

7. Mark Buehrle – The Wind (ZBB)
6. Matt Holliday – Chicken Fried (ZBB)
5. John Lackey – Friends in Low Places (Garth Brooks)
4. Jake Peavy – Ramblin’ Fever (Haggard)
3. Adam Wainwright – Song of the South (Alabama)
2. Matt Carpenter – Long Hot Summer Day (Turnpike Troubadours cover)
1. Madison Bumgarner – Fire on the Mountain (Marshall Tucker Band); Simple Man (Lynyrd Skynyrd)

Top 5 Weirdest Country Combos:

5. Bryce Harper – Wagon Wheel (Darius Rucker cover); Flower (Moby); Boyfriend (Bieber); The Best is Yet to Come (Sinatra)
4. Andrew Cashner – Chillin’ It (Cole Swindell); How to Be the Man (Riff Raff)
3. Paul GoldSchmidt – It’z Just What We Do (FGL) and We Went (Randy Houser); One Step Closer (Linkin Park)
2. Matt Cain – She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy (Kenny Chesney); Hillbilly Deluxe (Brooks & Dunn); Men in Black (Will Smith); Team (Iggy Azalea)
1. Dillon Gee – Shotgun (Randy Rogers Band); Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang (Dr. Dre & Snoop)

There are plenty of very good players with very good song choices that I haven’t mentioned in the lists above. These players are probably the core of baseball country: significant baseball talent and above average country music choices.  See, e.g., Ross Ohlendorf/ Brent Morel/ Matt Wieters (Barefoot Bluejean Night), Joe Blanton/ Jeff Clement (Hillbilly Deluxe), Joe Paterson (How Bad Do You Want It), Chris Owings (Sunny and 75), Andrew Benintendi (I Love This Life); Billy Butler (Chillin’ It, Drunk on You); Gordon Beckham (Chicken Fried); Jarrod Saltalamacchia (Eight Second Ride); Paul Janish (Ain’t Going Down till the Sun Comes Up); Travis Wood (You Can’t Hide Redneck).  The good taste of baseball talents like these perk our ears up when we least expect it and let us rock out to 15 or so seconds of a nice country song when we’re already living life pretty good at a baseball game.

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.

Some Thoughts on the 2016 50th Annual Country Music Awards

The Country Music Awards are awesome. If there is any group of celebrities I actually want to celebrate it’s country music stars, particularly because these are pop culture folks, yes wearing tuxedos and fancy dresses on the red carpet but at the same time hokey and one imagines comparatively humble and kind.

As in recent years, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood were the perfect MCs, witty but not trying too hard and topical but not political. Their routines are always creative, and funny in just the right way – we’re not laughing at anyone and if we even feel like we’re laughing at jokes we feel like we’re just laughing together because the routines are purposefully silly.

From a production perspective the CMAs bring everyone into the fold. The show opened with a wonderful (if far too short) tribute to the late, great Merle Haggard, and nice medley that featured Charlie Daniels’ fiddle positively smoking, and a reminder that any song Carrie Underwood sings (in this case Stand By Your Man) becomes hers for that moment. Of the performances delivered, my favorites were Brooks & Dunn with Brand New Man, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood’s snippet of Jackson and I don’t care what anyone else says: Beyoncé fit right in on that stage. Daddy Lessons is a country song and a nice one at that, and Beyoncé’s performance was great – upbeat and enthusiastic, and of course with her impressive vocals – strong horns and harmonica giving the song a nice New Orleans feel. I also enjoyed Chris Stapleton and Dwight Yoakam’s rendition of Seven Spanish Angels (more so than Stapleton’s Tennessee Whiskey performance of 2015). I’m also a big Reba fan and her 9 to 5 Dolly Parton tribute cover was spot on. Also appreciated were fun appearances by Peyton Manning, Olivia Newton John and Matthew McConaughey.

Focusing in on the awards themselves, the first live category of Best Single was disappointing. There were actually two songs in this category I felt were arguably deserving of the award: Chris Stapleton’s Nobody to Blame and Maren Morris’s My Church, but the award went to what is in my opinion the worst nominated song Thomas Rhett’s Die a Happy Man.

The CMAs had a chance at redemption but My Church didn’t make Song of the Year either, arguably an even more appropriate award for this song. Note to Reader: this award is a favorite of mine since I don’t think songwriters get nearly enough recognition. Lori McKenna, this year’s winner is a fine and deserving songwriter, though I don’t think Humble and Kind is her best effort. My Church features fine lyrics (co-written by Morris) beautifully delivered, with religious redemption serving as a nice metaphor for country music and importantly and more specifically listening to country music on the freedom of the open road on the radio, and attendent features of religion serving as a nice delivery vehicle for references to country music legends. I was pleased that they at least gave Maren a bit of stage time for the song, and what a wonderful accompaniment of Preservation Hall Jazz Band (!), and Morris was definitely the right choice for New Artist of the Year. Looking back to some of the legends who have won this award in past years, I think Morris was the only credible choice among the nominees. I have some nice things to say about Cole Swindell, which I hope to get to one of these days perhaps in a post about Pop Country, but with Chillin’ It, Hope You Get Lonely Tonight and Ain’t Worth the Whiskey from Swindell’s 2013/2014 album I don’t really think of him as a new artist any longer.

On Album of the Year, I didn’t have strong feelings among the nominees but I think Mr. Misunderstood was a good choice (Storyteller would also have been a good choice) and appreciate that Church has at least co-writing credits on every song on this album (though Morris was in her own right a co-producer of Hero). For me the most conspicuous note here was the absence of ZBB’s Jekyll + Hyde from the nominees (also probably a contender for this award in 2015) – what’s going on here?

Miscellaneous Notes on a Few Other Awards:

The gents in Brothers Osborne do have solid vocals (re: Vocal Duo of the Year), though it’s hard to put them in the same tier as Brooks & Dunn or Sugarland. These guys combined do not have the pipes of Jennifer Nettles. The Vocal Group of the Year award was a travesty. Little Big Town has a couple things going for it, including the significant vocal contributions of all members of the band, but this award clearly should have gone to Zac Brown Band. Clearly. It’s hard to argue with Carrie Underwood as Female Vocalist of the Year – particularly in a year when Jennifer Nettles, Reba or Martina McBride didn’t make the finalists. Ditto for Chris Stapleton as Male Vocalist of the Year, though again I’m not sure how Zac Brown doesn’t at least make the nomination list for his individual vocals notwithstanding that he performs as part of ZBB.

Just a faint rumor of Garth Brooks releasing a new album would probably have been enough to garner him the award for Entertainer of the Year, and while I haven’t had the good fortune to see Garth live, the performances I’ve seen of his are obviously spectacular and combined with a strong first single from his new album, this fairly gets GB the win here.

A Comprehensive List of Things Appearing in “I Love This Life” that LoCash Loves

  • my boots broke in
  • my camo hat
  • driving my truck across the railroad tracks
  • a fresh cut field with a first frost on
  • how it [a fresh cut field with a first frost on] shines like gold when the sun turned on
  • the sound of them wheels [presumably the wheels of LoCash’s truck when driving across the railroad tracks] with my baby singing along when “The Boys Of Summer” comes on – it’s not entirely clear in context whether LoCash has an independent love for when “The Boys of Summer” comes on or whether the aforementioned song coming on modifies LoCash’s love for the sound of them wheels with my baby singing along, perhaps to an unspecified song; I think it is the former
  • my small-town world
  • a country girl
  • a Friday night
  • this life
  • that county line bar where they all know my drink
  • the way she throws her hands up when that cover band plays – really the same editorial comment here, and in the next item, as to “when ‘The Boys of Summer’ comes on”; again, in context, I think the better understanding is that LoCash specifically loves the way and the taste as modified by these specific circumstances rather than as loving, in each case respectively, two separate things
  • the taste of her lips when she’s been sippin’ that wine
  • that ragged old barn that my grandpa made
  • that little white church out on 109

Additional things LoCash may love, but for which their love is not clearly expressed: 

My understanding from the song is that LoCash also loves “the sound of an ol’ dirt road rollin’ through my mind” however they do not explicitly profess a love for this. In addition, LoCash notes that “I still get drunk on her every time” which, while not specifically professing love for her, I think is best interpreted through the metaphor and in the context of the song listing things that they love as loving her.

Addendum: Songs listing things can be great (see, e.g., Kip Moore’s “Something ‘bout a Truck”) as, of course, are songs with unbridled optimism and enthusiasm for the great things in life (see, e.g., Kenny Chesney’s “Life is Good”). Preston Brust (together with Chris Lucas, LoCash f/k/a LoCash Cowboys) talks about writing this song here, saying “We got to talking about how there was so much negativity on the news. We were kind of fed up with it that morning. [We said] Let’s get back to the stuff that we love, the little things. Let’s make a laundry list of all the things we love, and let’s call this song, ‘I Love This Life.’” What a perfect mentality for writing country songs!

NB: As this song was co-written by Brust, Lucas and two other writers, and sung by both Brust and Lucas – in the first person – I have sort of just assumed that both members of LoCash each love all of the items in the song, I think it’s better that way.