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 CrowellĀ 

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