Review – Sam Hunt’s “Downtown’s Dead”

Change is hard for everyone to accept. In country music there are two artists right now who can claim superstar status (transcend beyond the genre): Chris Stapleton and Sam Hunt. They’re both fusion country artists. Now I’ve been on record as a Stapleton fan for a while, but it’s kind of been the opposite with Hunt. It’s what happens when you’re blinded by traditionalist hate, even though Stapleton certainly doesn’t fall into the category of tradition. Yet Hunt gets all of the hate. All the while he’s proving to everyone that change in country music can be accepted by a lot of people. He isn’t your standard pop country artist.

This came to me when he released “Body Like a Backroad” last year. It was the only song he released last year, but it was one of the biggest hits of the year in all genres. Most artists would have gladly capitalized on this and released an album. But not Hunt. He’s not interested in fame and fortune, contrary to the image traditionalists and pop country fans want to portray. He doesn’t really use social media much and it’s been four years since his debut album. Hunt is taking the exact opposite approach of today’s average artist. He’s actually taking his time releasing music and it’s quite a refreshing approach.

That leads us to his brand new single “Downtown’s Dead.” The echoes of a dobro guitar introduce the song before feeding into a blend of country, R&B and pop influences. The song is about the loneliness of a crowded bar. Much like Maren Morris’ “I Could Use a Love Song,” this single centers around the millennial angst of dating and socializing in today’s world. It’s the realization of chasing after the highs of the bar and clubs scenes only leads to emptiness and unhappiness. True satisfaction can’t be found at the bottom of a glass or end of a bar. Hunt perfectly frames this message around the scenes of a club on Tuesday and Friday nights. At the end of it all, he realizes he needs to go back to the woman he loves. It’s a short and effective story that conveys its message well. While I don’t expect Hunt’s new album anytime soon, he delivered another song that is bound to be played all summer in “Downtown’s Dead.”

Grade: Really Good Lamentation of Modern Socialization

Songwriters: Sam Hunt, Josh Osborne, Shane McAnally & Zach Crowell 

Pop Country & Traditional Country: Two Sides of the Same Boring Coin

For years I’ve watched fans of pop country and fans of traditional country bicker and argue with each other. I was on both “sides” at some point or another. It’s a never-ending battle of whose sound is better and who deserves a fair shake on radio/in the mainstream. But then one day you see through all the bullshit and smokescreens. You realize like I have that the pop country and traditional country fans are all the same.

These two are simply different sides of the same coin. If you’re wondering where Americana and Texas country factor into this equation, they’re the candy wrappers blowing in the wind that nobody outside of their little niches give a shit about. So why are pop country and traditional country fans the same? Well for one both demand a certain sound to their country music. Traditional country fans demand pedal steel guitar, fiddles and a bunch of tear in my beer lyrics. That’s “real country” in their eyes. Pop country fans want something instantly catchy, sugary and fun. As long as they can sing along with it, it’s all good. So on one side you have a faux integrity and another who doesn’t care about integrity at all. As long as they get what they want, damn the consequences. And what they want is the problem. They don’t want enough. They don’t demand enough out of their favorites artists and music. They want a rigid set of rules that must be followed because it’s the “right way” of doing music.

Making music is not about doing things the right way. The best music comes out of breaking the rules and not following the straight line. All of the heroes and legends they love to praise from Hank to Willie to Garth became the icons they became because they pushed the limits and brought something new to the table. They did it their way, but for some reason they want all of these new artists to do it like they did. It’s quite a paradox. I mean look at outlaw country music. It was built on challenging the status quo and sound, but yet today’s “outlaw” artists are praised for just copying Waylon. How is this outlaw? It’s not. How is this helping the genre? It’s not. In fact both pop country and traditional country fans are simultaneously destroying it’s reputation. That’s right. It’s not the pop collaborators or the major labels or radio, but you the traditional country fan and you the pop country fan that are the problem.

You people accept whatever your favorite artist puts out. You don’t demand enough and quite frankly you’re not listening. I remember when I realized in the past year I had stopped listening to the music. In fact I conducted a little experiment earlier this year that brought this to my attention. I decided to unsubscribe from Spotify. I quit it for over a month. For one I was angry to find one day all of my downloaded music was erased. But more importantly I was dissatisfied with music and I couldn’t figure out why. So for that month plus period I solely listened to new music via YouTube. With all of the ads YouTube likes to shove in your face nowadays, listening to a new album will lead to a lot of ads playing. So I quickly realized I better listen closely unless I wanted to be subjected to more ads. If I truly enjoyed the album, I would purchase it in some form. In addition I also found myself listening to great albums I already had in my library that I had forgotten about.

The realization this led me to: I had become a passive listener as a result of the endless buffet of streaming and a slave to the never-ending music release cycle. In a brazen effort to keep up with the Joneses, I had lost sight of the music and why I listen. It was startling, but at the same time an epiphany. So now I approach all music with a refreshed, honest outlook. Hence why many may be confused why my new outlook clashes with the old one I expressed on my old blog. Trust me I was confused at first too. Artists who impressed me in the past were no longer impressing me with their new album releases this year. First Aid Kit, Wade Bowen, Blackberry Smoke, Brothers Osborne, Ashley Monroe: none of their new albums are good in my eyes. In the past I would have liked these albums because I’m supposed to and a lot of other people enjoy them, so I need to keep listening until it clicks. If you get through five listens of an album and it’s not clicking, you move on. You don’t like it. You don’t keep dogfooding it until you “get it.”

It may sound selfish, condescending and outright arrogant to demand more from artists. But you gotta put things in perspective. I don’t think artists today understand what they’re competing with in the marketplace of attention. In music alone they’re competing with all other current releases, all other artists in their genre and every artist who’s ever released music. An artist has to convince the listener to listen to them over another artist’s new release, their favorite artists’ past releases and all of the classics from Elvis to Tom Petty. So yes I do expect to be impressed. There’s a lot of music out there and if you don’t bring it, I am just going to listen to something else. There’s always another album and another artist.

Now let’s bring it back to country music and the current state of it. I not only don’t like its current standing, but it’s future too. Hip-Hop is becoming the dominant genre. Pop is fading and country is fading even faster. Other than Chris Stapleton and Sam Hunt, nobody is capturing a lot of sales, streams and attention. Creativity is bankrupt across the genre. Everybody is just trying to maintain the status quo. This is a genre in survival mode. Why else do you think pop collaborations are popping up? It’s two genres teaming up in a desperate attempt to remain relevant. The truth is country has nothing for hip-hop. Millennials could not be further detached from country music. But they can’t get enough of hip-hop. Why? Because that genre is innovating and pushing the boundaries. New and interesting music is constant. Look at the charts: Drake, Cardi B, J Cole, Post Malone, Migos, Rae Stremmurd and the Black Panther soundtrack are everywhere. We’re not even to June yet when Drake and Kanye release new albums.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Right now pop country and traditional country fans are engaging in insanity by continuing to accept the level of quality of the music being produced in the genre. It’s not good enough and country music fans deserve more. But will they ever ask for more? Heads or tails it does not matter because the end result is the same if both sides refuse to change.

Classic Review – The Mavericks’ ‘In Time’

I think you could make the argument that no band embodies the fusion country moniker better than The Mavericks. The pioneering group came together in 1989 in Miami, Florida and throughout the 90s racked up acclaim and awards. In 2003 they broke up and nine years later reunited, leading to their comeback album In Time. Throughout all of this, The Mavericks pushed the envelope better than almost everyone in the genre. The group combines classic country with a variety of sounds, most notably Tex-Mex, Latin, rock and soul influences. The band at the time of their comeback was made up of frontman Raul Malo, guitarist Eddie Perez, bass guitarist Robert Reynolds, keyboard player Jerry Dale McFadden and drummer Paul Deakin. In 2013 many in country music focused on another comeback album and the debut of another prominent fusion country artist, but it was The Mavericks who delivered what I believe to be the best of the year and an album for the ages with In Time.

The album opens with the jovial-spirited “Back In Your Arms Again.” The song revolves around the reunion of old lovers who swore they would never want each other again. Prominent mariachi horns accompany the song throughout giving it a decidedly latin flavor. It’s pretty much the perfect song to open a comeback album and a quick reminder of the band’s creative style. “Lies” is about a man never coming to grips with the lies his woman tells him, as he just can’t bring himself to shake her hold on him. This appropriately segues into “Born To Be Blue,” a man who feels he’s forever going to be heartbroken because he can’t win over the woman he loves. Malo’s smooth as silk voice is one of the best in the business and it’s a song like this where you really feel this because he adds so much emotion to the lyrics. The mashup of guitars and accordion do a great job of setting the tone too.

There are many fantastic songs on this album, but the gem and perhaps the best song The Mavericks have ever recorded is “Come Unto Me.” The band is perfectly in sync on this song. The lyrics are gripping and delivered with a high level of gravitas from Malo (who also solely wrote the song). The instrumentation comes together to make an infectious, soulful, Tex-Mex sound that just sticks with you. On the digital version of this album there’s even a Spanish version of the song as a bonus track, which I found to be a cool extra and demonstration of how great music is great no matter the language.

The mournful “In Another’s Arms” shows the group can shine just as bright on the quieter moments on the album. The song is about a man reflecting on the love not lost between him and his ex, but now they each rest in arms of another lover. Despite this love, they can never be the ones in each other’s arms. I love the way Malo achingly delivers the line, “If only I’d have known/That the love that lingers on/Still makes the world go ’round.” It really adds a lot of heart to the song and gives it the level of importance needed to resonate with the listener. “Fall Apart” is about the age-old realization that it’s better to have loved and lost it, than to have never experienced that love at all. It’s about taking heartache and the memories of being in love and turning it into new love. It’s also yet another song on this album that is immediately infectious and catchy.

A blast of horns introduce “All Over Again,” which is about an old lover continually turning up to break your heart over and over again. While this topic is nothing new in country music or any genre of music, it’s amazing how Malo and company are able to so perfectly capture the emotions of the situation (regret, denial, uncertainty, trying to change). “Forgive Me” is a slow-waltz heartache tune about coming to grips with your heartache. The song has a somber, yet dreamy feel, which makes you picture a sad man sitting at the end of a dark bar trying to repair the shattered pieces of his heart. The accordion-laden “Amsterdam Moon” is a sort of wistful song about how the moon is always there to guide through the night. But tonight a man decides he’s going to stay up to watch her instead, paying her back for all of the nights she’s watched over him.

The Mavericks delve into heartbreak again on “That’s Not My Name.” The song seemingly implies it’s about a man being in denial over being alone after finding out his woman ran around on him and now coming off as the “biggest fool in town.” The upbeat and fun “As Long As There’s Loving Tonight” is about…well sex. It’s about the constant cat and mouse game of making love and breaking up over and over. But as long as there’s sex, both sides will keep playing the game. The song has more of a jazzy influence, with the multiple horns. This gives it a night on the town type feel, which suits the lyrics well.

“Dance In the Moonlight” is a fun love song that makes you want to dance in the moonlight of course. This is another song that wears it’s Tex-Mex influences on its sleeve and makes me wonder why more country artists don’t explore this in their music. The album closes out with “(Call Me) When You Get To Heaven,” a sobering song about reuniting with a loved one when you get to heaven. While there a lot of fun moments on this album, don’t overlook this closing song, as it’s perhaps the best sad song from The Mavericks. The eery organ play sets the tone and Malo’s voice carries the emotion needed to drive across the soberness of this song.

While this album runs a bit longer than I like albums to run, the quality on In Time is simply overwhelming. Each song on this album packs a punch in some way and utilizes all of the elements at its disposal. You won’t find many voices better than Raul Malo, who is just a natural talent that was meant to sing. This man could sing the phone book and make it sound amazing. The rest of the band though just goes together so well too. Their ability to mash together so many different sounds can’t be understated, as most bands could not pull off this vision and level of creativity. In Time is one of the best demonstrations you can hear of how to make country music fresh, exciting and immediately engaging.

Album’s Top Highlights: Come Unto Me, As Long As There’s Loving Tonight, Born To Be Blue, Back In Your Arms Again, Dance in the Moonlight, In Another’s Arms


Producers: Niko Bolas & Raul Malo

Songwriters: Raul Malo, Eddie Perez, Gary Nicholson, Seth Walker, Al Anderson, Bob DiPiero, James House, Liz Rodrigues, Wally Wilson, Alan Miller

Review – LANCO’s “Born To Love You”

LANCO is a relatively new band that has broken onto the country scene. The name is short for Lancaster and Company if you’re wondering, as the name is quite different. It’s five-piece band, led by lead vocalist Brandon Lancaster. In 2017 they had their first hit in “Greatest Love Story,” a catchy love ballad with classic rock sensibilities. It was a true hit, as it had great sales to match it’s heavy airplay. Now they have released their follow-up single, “Born to Love You.” Just like “Greatest Love Story,” this song also has a classic rock feel about it. It’s a love anthem with an instantly catchy hook (“Wherever I go and whatever I do, I was born to love you”). The song’s real secret sauce is the bouncy synth that drives the song and gives it a danceability that will put it on a lot of summer playlists. Melody is a missing element from so much music nowadays and this song has it in spades. The combination of new wave tinges and upbeat country rock with easily connectable lyrics make “Born to Love You” a great example of how to make something that’s both fun and full of heart.

Grade: Pretty Good Love Anthem

Songwriters: Brandon Lancaster, Josh Osborne, Ashley Gorley & Ross Copperman 

Essential Review – Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives’ ‘Way Out West’

You can’t truly appreciate the sheer talent of a band until you see them live. I’ve had this proven to me time and time again, most recently with Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives. I can definitively say they put on one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. Marty, guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson and bassist Chris Scruggs are each outstanding, whether they’re playing an instrument or stepping behind the mic to sing. I couldn’t have been more impressed by a band in a live setting. Last year they also impressed with their newest album Way Out West, an album I’ve seen many appropriately describe as cinematic. It was one of the best of 2017 and without a doubt deserves a spot in Fusion Country Classics & Essentials.

Way Out West is a true album, as each song is directly connected with each other. The opening songs “Desert Prayer, Pt. I” and “Mojave” set the scene for listeners and prepares us on a trippy exploration through the desert and the American west. On the latter we get our first tastes of surf-rock tinged guitar licks from Vaughan. The mood is perfectly set as we hear the first vocals from Stuart on “Lost on the Desert.” It’s the story of a man arrested for stealing a lot of money, which he hides out in the desert. Once he’s able to escape the hands of the law, he heads for the spot he hid the money. But the heat starts playing tricks on him and he can’t find the money or any water, as “the devil” had tricked him and left him to die in the desert. This song is such a prime example of vivid storytelling, from the descriptive lyrics to the mood set by the instruments.

The album’s title track takes us on a different kind of trip, a drug-induced one. It tells the tales of different instances a man take drugs and the experiences he feels. At the end Stuart tells us of the beauty of the American west, but if you ever go on a trip, don’t do drugs to take that trip. The psychedelic feel of the song sucks you right in and the beautiful harmonies make for a perfect close to the song. “El Fantasma del Toro” is probably my favorite instrumental on the album, in large part thanks to the great guitar work and the Mexican-flavored influences. The song puts me in mind of standing in the middle of a desert, the air dry, as I watch the steam rise in the distance while the sun beats down overhead. It’s the ideal atmospheric song for the American west.

“Old Mexico” is another gem that clicks upon first listen. It tells another tale of a criminal on the run, this time trying to make his way to Mexico to a beautiful señorita and more importantly freedom from a life in jail in the United States. The band’s harmonizing to close out this song is incredible and really adds an explanation point (it was even better live). “Time Don’t Wait” is really catchy, as the hook is instantly memorable. The band delivers another great instrumental in “Quicksand” that takes you right into their cover of Benny Goodman’s “Air Mail Special.” The song fits great into the band’s wheelhouse of foot-tapping, honky-tonk tunes and fits well within this album. “Torpedo” is another song that has some cool 60s, surf-rock influence that would have fit in nicely next to the Beach Boys music in their heyday. Not many bands could get away with the amount of instrumentals as there are on this album, but most bands aren’t as talented as Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives. Plus all of the instrumentals are just fantastic, a credit to how the tight this band is and producer Mike Campbell.

The somber-toned “Please Don’t Say Goodbye” is a heartbreak tune that sees a man lamenting to his woman to not walk out the door. The backing vocals from the band on this are the real secret sauce behind this song, as it adds levity and almost a haunting feel to the song. “Whole Lotta Highway” is the most traditional moment on the album, as it’s your classic truck-driving country song. It makes you want to hit the road and have an adventure. “Desert Prayer, Pt. II” features some soulful crooning from the band that segues right into “Wait for the Morning” and “Way Out West (Reprise).” The former has a reflective tone, as it’s a bring it on home moment after seeing the world and taking in the lessons you’ve learned along the way. Meanwhile the latter puts a fitting cap on the end of an album that feels more like an immersive movie experience.

Many artists in the latter stages of their career rest on their laurels and become complacent. But that’s certainly not the case for Marty Stuart. He’s as vibrant and energetic as any young artists today. More importantly he’s still pushing the creative boundaries to create new and exciting music for new and old generations alike. Way Out West is a shining landmark in his illustrious career and the careers of his Fabulous Superlatives. Stuart and his band revive an old sound and theme and breathe brand new life into it. If only more artists could innovate and follow the lead of this talented group. Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives and Way Out West are absolutely essential listening.

Album’s Top Highlights: Old Mexico, El Fantasma del Toro, Lost on the Desert, Time Don’t Wait, Torpedo, Way Out West


Producer: Mike Campbell 

Songwriters: Marty Stuart, Kenny Vaughan, Harry Stinson, Chris Scruggs, Benny Goodman, Brian Glenn Nolf

Classic Review – Sturgill Simpson’s ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’

As more time passes, the impact of this album continues to grow. Who would have thought a sophomore release from a relatively unknown independent artist from Kentucky in 2014 would change the country music landscape? The release of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music would not only launch the career of Sturgill Simpson, but also launched the career of Chris Stapleton. It was one of the main inspirations behind his debut album Traveller and now Stapleton is one of the biggest artists in all of music. These two artists rise to the top helped many other artists rise to the top and what I dub fusion country music has taken on a life of its own. This blog wouldn’t be here without Sturgill Simpson, so it’s only appropriate that the very first induction into Fusion Country Classics & Essentials is Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.

The voice of Sturgill’s late grandfather introduces you into the album’s leading track “Turtles All The Way Down.” It’s the perfect song to lead off the album because it tells you right away you’re listening to a very different, but special country album. The psychedelic production tinges and drug-fueled lyrics are what hook you in and what many love to focus on. But it’s the message of enduring love that the song drives across that lasts with you. That’s the central theme of the album and what people who actually listen to it will take from the album. “Life of Sin” is a rambunctious song about Simpson’s past life of drugs and sin that drove his life. It wasn’t a great life, but it was his life and he owns it. Then you have “Living The Dream,” which has become a crowd favorite at live shows and one of Simpson’s best songs. The song revolves around balancing the pursuit of your dreams, but also needing to find work. A job doesn’t get you out of bed in the morning, but a dream sure does. The problem is life not wanting to work as you planned, as Sturgill likens it to “making a big old pot of coffee when you ain’t got no cream.”

“Voices” is about being driven crazy by all of the different voices you hear in your life. From a family member who knows best to the perfect life that gets sold to you on television by media and celebrities, everybody is trying to tell you how to run your life. It’s a never-ending bullshit loop. Sturgill takes a classic country approach on his cover of Buford Abner’s “Long White Line,” as it’s about hitting the road to clear your mind of the fresh heartbreak just dropped on your lap. The song’s common refrain, “tell ’em I’m somewhere looking for the end of that long white line,” implies more than just chasing the white lines of the highway, at least in the context of this album. I feel like a lot of people miss this possible double entendre, which adds even more to the song.

The album’s biggest curveball might be Simpson’s cover of When In Rome’s “The Promise,” a late 80s, new wave song that Sturgill turns into a heartfelt love ballad. Many thought this was a strange choice, but after you get to know Simpson you figure out this is par for the course for him. It’s such a perfect fit for this album though and will go down as one of the hidden gems of Simpson’s career. The album’s shortest track “A Little Light” sees Simpson walking towards the light of love and seeing the errors of his past life of sin and debauchery. This theme continues on “Just Let Go,” where Simpson lets all of the demons of drugs, society’s voices and even his own ego fade from his mind. He’s learned he can just it all go and embrace what he’s hammered on throughout the album and that is the love in his life.

This leads to reminiscing on one last trip through his days of drugs on “It Ain’t All Flowers.” It’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music at it’s most trippy, psychedelic and perhaps standout moment. The whole album builds to this climax of emotions and sounds, as Simpson howls his way through the song. It’s also Simpson’s most experimental and exploratory moment of his career, bringing sounds that you never hear in country songs. It should have been the indicator for listeners that Simpson would not be sticking to their script they had in mind for him. Some got that memo, while others didn’t. The true end of the album is the bonus track, “Panbowl.” It’s a reflecting, traditional song where Simpson wishes he could go back to the days of his youth when life wasn’t so complicated. At the same time it serves as a thank you to his family and the great moments they gave him, while going back to where this album begins with his grandfather introducing us to the record.

While it’s only been four years since the release of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, we can already point to this album as one of the most important country albums of the 2010’s. This album proved country music could evolve without sacrificing its soul. It also proved to artists that you should take risks and inspired them to pursue their sound. You don’t need a major label to make a cultural impact, which is a message that is continuing to spread throughout all genres of music. If the music is truly great enough, people will eventually find it. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the stellar production work of Dave Cobb throughout this album, as he too would rise to a greater level of prominence after the release of this album. He’s the most hotly demanded producer in Nashville today, as he racks up numerous awards for his impressive body of work. This album has accomplished so much and will probably prove to be even more influential with the passage of time. I could not think of a more slam dunk choice to be the first induction into Fusion Country Classics & Essentials. 

Album’s Top Highlights: Turtles All The Way Down, It Ain’t All Flowers, Living The Dream, The Promise, Long White Line


Producer: Dave Cobb

Songwriters: Sturgill Simpson, Buford Abner, Clive Farrington, Michael Floreale, Andrew Mann

Review – Kelly Willis’ “Back Being Blue”

Never underestimate the power of a great lead single. The power of the song beats any kind of marketing you do for an album. That is the certainly the case with Kelly Willis’ lead single “Back Being Blue.” The album with the same name is set for release next month. And if it’s as good as this song, we’re in for one great album. This will be her first album in over ten years, as in recent years she’s released duet albums with her husband and fellow country artist Bruce Robison. The song hooked me from the very first listen. With tinges of R&B and blues complimenting a classic country sound, Willis sings about the heartbreak of hearing about her now ex being back in the arms of another woman. The ex tries breaking things off amicably, but the heartache is still palpable from the woman as she watches love walk away from her. The whole song is a classically fresh approach to the heartbreak song, conveying both heartbreaking emotion and an easily relatable story. Kelly Willis delivers a real knockout here and I’m looking forward to hear the rest of Back Being Blue.

Grade: Great Heartbreak Song

Songwriter: Kelly Willis