Album Review: Ashton Shepherd, Where Country Grows
published July 2011 at Engine145.com
Like neckbeards and prostate cancer, the desire to load albums with songs glorifying rural locales has been a primarily male affliction. While Blake Shelton and Jason Aldean (country’s top-selling album artist of 2011 so far) have made lasting careers of hillbilly bones and dirt road anthems, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift focus most of their creative energies on love: finding it, inspiring it, avenging it. The few redneck woman type acts that do pop up tend to be short-lived.
Although Ashton Shepherd has been touted as a modern-day Loretta Lynn, the viewpoints espoused in her songs wouldn’t even be progressive by the standards of 1972, when Lynn shook up the charts with “Rated X.” In fact, Shepherd’s unwillingness to challenge prevailing social mores and unironic deployment of much-abused redneck tropes make her more like a female Blake Shelton.
Where exactly does country grow? “In the hearts of those who know what life’s all about,” the title track informs us. As supporting evidence, Shepherd points out that the countryside is the only place you’ll find people who pray, feel proud of themselves, and hold doors open for old women. Unable to hang with the door-slamming ways of city dwellers, the transplanted backwoods boy of “More Cows Than People” predictably hightails it back to the country as quickly as possible. Given the rural boosterism of Shepherd’s own writing, even an attentive listener would be hard-pressed to identify the Peach Pickers song “Beer on a Boat” as one of the album’s two outside cuts.
Shepherd’s takes on relationship troubles are no less black and white: the guy is usually in the wrong, and she’s not shy about telling him so. That’s certainly the case in “Look It Up,” the Angaleena Presley-penned kiss-off of a lead single. Working the feminine empowerment angle just as insistently, “I’m Good” finds Shepherd exploring the upper ranges of her voice, sounding something like rural Alabama’s answer to Jennifer Nettles. Her most interesting effort along these lines is “That All Leads to One Thing,” a dramatic story song produced in the manner of an old Reba hit. Much like Shelton, it’s in the domain of relationship songs that Shepherd takes her biggest chances, musically if not lyrically.
Even in love, she never quite outruns her songwriting demons. Witness “I’m Just a Woman,” an essentializing take on gender relations whose best and most subversive trick – the sly twist of the knife at “After all, you are just a man” – is borrowed directly from Tammy Wynette circa 1968. Elsewhere, the song kills its momentum by rhyming ‘glad’ with ‘sad’ and explaining away individual feelings with questionable generalities such as “I guess I’m just a woman/And that’s what women do/We carry the weight of the world on our shoulders.” Oh, is that what women do? I thought they were real people, not made-to-order martyrs.
Still, Shepherd’s is a charismatic and authentically country voice and Buddy Cannon’s production keeps real instruments (fiddles, steel guitars, harmonicas) distinguishable in the mix throughout, making this at least better than your average mainstream country release. If the young singer-songwriter could expand her topical palette a bit and reach less often for easy lines and pat dichotomies – country good/city bad, women good/men bad – she could really start making some headway.
Album Review: Trace Adkins, Cowboy’s Back in Town
published September 2010 at The9513.com
It’s tempting to pin anything wrong with Trace Adkins’ Show Dog-Universal debut on the corrosive influence of Toby Keith, whose stint as label kingpin has already put his own career in a long, painful artistic nosedive. But other than one superfluous appearance by labelmates Trailer Choir, Cowboy’s Back in Town sounds like exactly what Adkins would do left to his own devices.
That’s part of the problem. Even great singers (arguably, both Adkins and Keith qualify) sometimes require outside guidance and perspective to keep from letting their output grow stagnant. Finally free of Capitol oversight, Adkins celebrates his independence by squandering one of country’s most rich and resonant voices on genuinely atrocious fare like “Brown Chicken Brown Cow,” “Whoop a Man’s Ass,” and “Ala-Freakin-Bama,” the latter a top contender in the race for worst song in the history of country music.
The gentler songs–where Adkins’ gifts typically shine the brightest–aren’t quite enough to reverse the tide. There’s no “Arlington” or “Sometimes a Man Takes a Drink” here. Instead, we get the likes of “Still Love You” and “A Little Bit of Missin’ You,” nice but unmemorable love songs about how just seeing her is like having “the weight of the world [lifted] off my back” and he’ll love her until “the last time this world spins around.”
The bemused armchair commentary of “Hell, I Can Do That” is good for a chuckle or two, and the slower numbers in particular are all beautifully sung, but the only real worthy addition to the canon of Adkins classics is lead single “This Ain’t No Love Song,” a smart, catchy bit of self-deception. With the worst being utterly unsalvageable and the best being merely pretty good, there isn’t much to recommend this album over any of the countless other major releases due in the final trimester of 2010. If you’ve heard the lead single, you’ve already heard the best Cowboy’s Back in Town has to offer and can probably safely pass up the rest.
Mini Album Review: Todd Snider, East Nashville Skyline
published December 2009 at The9513.com
Snider’s swan song for the Oh Boy label was the one where everything finally came together, with the artist writing and singing in a voice more incisive and acerbic than ever and the production no longer straining to gloss up his ragged charm. Edging toward his 40s, Snider reined in the sometimes scattered creative impulses of his youth and delivered this focused tour de force, an album mixing hard-luck tales of aging and addiction with sharp-tongued social commentary, always with a glimmer of hope and a good-natured wink.
Concert Review: Elizabeth Cook
published September 2010 at The9513.com
A chalkboard at the door promised “Old time country and Americana,” and any passerby curious enough to venture down the long hallway and up the old wooden stairs into the main room of the intimate Palms Playhouse would have found just that during Elizabeth Cook’s 90-minute Friday night set.
Beginning with Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again” and encoring with Dolly Parton’s “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy,” there was no mistaking Cook’s affection for classic country music. The Americana element came largely thanks to rocker husband Tim Carroll, who layered in some intriguingly offbeat electric guitar work and sang two songs of his own. Usual stand-up bassist Bones Hillman didn’t accompany them on this particular trip.
The set was comprised mostly of songs from Cook’s recent indie releases Balls and Welder, which have ironically earned her all the attention and acclaim that eluded her during what should have been a high-profile stint on Warner Bros. Nashville. (Hey Y’all, the product of that partnership, deserved a better fate.)
Cook’s songwriting is only getting sharper, with “Heroin Addict Sister,” “Mama’s Funeral,” and “El Camino” being among the very best she’s ever done. Even as she covers Hem and The Velvet Underground on her latest albums, the live show remains a decidedly down-home affair: Songs are introduced with anecdotes and ended with smiling “thank yous.” She pays respects to Merle, Dolly, Loretta, the Louvin Brothers, Jessi Colter, Frankie Miller, and mama, singing just as well as she does on the records and speaking with an even thicker accent. At some point, she’ll probably swap her boots for tap shoes and show you some clogging. At her merchandise table, you’ll find branded potholders for sale.
Clogging, potholders, and the Louvin Brothers? In many ways, her show seems modeled after a vintage Opry broadcast. Well played, Ms. Cook. That’s definitely “old time country.”
Satirical (Onion-style) Country News Article:
Aging Portrait of Tim McGraw Discovered in Attic
published April 2009 at CountryCalifornia.com
A member of a painting crew employed at the Nashville-area home of country music star Tim McGraw, whose boyish good looks have made him a female fan favorite for the past 15 years, accidentally took a wrong turn and ended up in the attic, where a sudden gust of wind through a cracked window blew the veil off of a terrifying portrait of an aging, almost unrecognizably disfigured McGraw. Although the man quickly replaced the veil and exited the room, he was left confused by what he had seen.
“It was the most ghastly thing ever. It was like I was looking into the soul of evil. I can see why someone would want to keep something like that hidden in the attic, but why have it at all? I could only tell it was Tim by the hat and the women’s top he was wearing,” said the painter, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Almost immediately after the story broke, McGraw gathered reporters on his front lawn to issue a statement. His taut, well-tanned skin and ivory-white teeth glistening from underneath his trademark black cowboy hat, he remarked: “I don’t know what that man thinks he saw, but there’s no such painting in that attic. You guys know that I wouldn’t lie to you, right?” McGraw smiled and the reporters nodded in agreement, laughing off the latest in a long line of ridiculous McGraw rumors. On her way back to her car, reporter Candice Murphy sighed: “He’s so nice and so handsome. It’s a shame that people keep coming out of the woodwork trying to cast aspersions.”
The rumor mill has been unkind to McGraw so far this year. In January, twenty kooky patrons of a Nashville-area Starbucks reported seeing him poring over a certain French book denounced by religious leaders Pope Benedict XVI and Dr. Phil as “morally poisonous.” In February, a clearly-deranged man interrupted one of his concerts demanding to know why his “friendship [was] so fatal to young men.” There have also been dozens of alleged McGraw sightings at opium dens, though few fans have shown much willingness to trust the observational skills of people who hang out around opium dens.
While the painter and his obviously-fabricated story have been the subject of much mockery among reporters and the McGraw faithful, others have approached the matter with more caution, suggesting that if the alleged portrait does exist, McGraw might want to think twice about driving a dagger through it.