Album Review – Blackberry Smoke’s ‘Find a Light’

I like to focus on the great music and keep things positive. But I also like to be honest. So I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that initially I surprisingly was not a fan of Blackberry Smoke’s newest album Find a Light. This is coming from someone who’s followed the band for years now and enjoyed a lot of their work. Their previous album Like An Arrow is in my mind their best album they’ve released so far. The catch-22 of course is the next album will inevitably be compared to it and will most likely sound worse. Basically it took me months after this album’s release to view this as its own work and give it some truly fair listens. Just like their previous albums, Find a Light has much to enjoy. It’s pretty hard for frontman Charlie Starr and his band to disappoint you when they consistently deliver some of the most infectious licks in southern and country rock today.

The album greets you with the roaring “Flesh and Bone.” The song revolves around the chaos in today’s world, both the good and bad happening. But you can only watch it all unfold, as at the end of the day you’re just human. Layers of infectious guitar licks fill the song wall-to-wall, firing you up for the rest of this album. “Run Away from it All” is about getting away from it all and finding solace from discourse. It’s a solid tune, although I think it could have used a little more punch in the production like in the next song “The Crooked Kind.” It’s your classic Blackberry Smoke track: an instantly catchy hook driven by their jam-y, southern rock/country fusion sound. It’s definitely one of the most memorable and fun tracks on Find a Light.

“Medicate My Mind” is about chilling out, perhaps with a herbal remedy that can be used legally in certain states and beloved by the great Willie Nelson. The breezy feel of the song makes it perfect for a lazy summer afternoon. One of the lighter moments on the album is “I’ve Got This Song,” which is about the importance of a good song and the pride taken in the craft of music. You can feel like you have nothing, but that one song makes you feel like you have it all. The fiddle play perfectly accentuates the lyrics, giving it weight, but letting the lyrics lead the way. The pedal steel guitar that creeps in during the bridge is the cherry on top. “Best Seat in the House” is another song that seems addressed towards current mood of society: impatience, frustration, jealousy and the need for instant gratification. But there’s also that hope for better days ahead and the day when you finally reach the position in life you desire. It’s excellent songwriting from Starr and Keith Nelson.

The first of three features on the album is pedal steel guitar virtuoso Robert Randolph on “I Keep Ramblin’.” Randolph meshes his funky, gospel influences with the rollicking, gritty sounds of Blackberry Smoke to create something that is an absolute blast. This is one that is guaranteed to get you up and moving. I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to hit the repeat button on this one, as it’s just so much fun. “Seems so Far” is a reflective song about the passage of time, how our experiences shape us and the unpredictability of what’s ahead. It reminds me a lot of “The Good Life” on their last album, which I thought did a better job of tackling the existential issue of living, as the lyrics were a little more fleshed out and detailed. The band brings the fire back on “Lord Strike Me Dead.” It’s a commentary on the divisiveness of today’s society and the cutthroat, selfish attitudes pervading it, leading to Starr pleading to God for help. It’s a pretty relatable and timely in this environment. It’s the ideal blow off song when you’ve had enough bullshit.

Amanda Shires joins the band on “Let Me Down Easy.” It’s a light song about letting go of a relationship peacefully, even though one side is clearly crushed. I enjoy the duality of emotions displayed through the lyrics, although I would’ve liked to have heard some solo lines from Shires to add another layer to it. “Nobody Gives a Damn” is another foot-stomping, fist-pumping song full of passion and anger. This feels like a song directed towards the insanity of social media and the over-inflated self-importance it creates. The guitars punch you right in the face (in a good way of course) and this is another one that sticks with you long after listening.

The anthemic “Till The Wheels Fall Off” is an ode to never giving up and going until you can’t anymore. The instrumentation is at it’s best on the entire album and reminder of how Blackberry Smoke it at it’s best when there’s some piss and vinegar behind the lyrics. The Wood Brothers join in on the final track of the album “Mother Mountain.” It’s a folky, trip-y track about finding peace in nature. This feels like a page out of the 70s rock scene from bands like Led Zeppelin, who would have plenty of loud, electric guitar heavy songs like “Black Dog” and then sprinkle in acoustic-driven songs like “Misty Mountain Hop.” It’s tranquility that is a fitting moment of clarity, bringing a lighter feel to give levity to balance out the more raucous moments of the album.

Find a Light is an album that lives up to its name, centering around finding balance and calm in a world filled with chaos and anger. Perhaps this explains what I felt like was a lighter approach production-wise to the songs in comparison to their previous two albums. This is probably the quietest album from Blackberry Smoke, a band who I think shines brightest at their hardest sounding. But despite a lighter sound, there’s still plenty of rollicking, gritty loud guitars throughout that entertain and impress. Led by the underrated songwriting of Starr, the songwriting is pretty rock solid throughout as always. There’s plenty of catchy hooks and a fair share of songs with some real meat behind the messages. Blackberry Smoke had a tough task following up the fantastic¬†Like An Arrow, but they ultimately come through with a pretty damn good follow-up in Find a Light.

Grade: 8/10

Album’s Top Highlights: Best Seat in the House, Nobody Gives a Damn, I’ll Keep Ramblin’, Till The Wheels Fall Off, Mother Mountain, I’ve Got This Song


Producer: Blackberry Smoke

Songwriters: Charlie Starr, Keith Nelson, Travis Meadows, Robert Randolph

Album Review – Jeff Hyde’s ‘Norman Rockwell World’

Sometimes when you listen to an album, you know right away you’re listening to something different. As I’ve said, change is hard to accept. But I think Jeff Hyde has stumbled onto a pretty good change on his debut album Norman Rockwell World. Hyde is no newcomer to country music, as he’s spent the last 12 years in Eric Church’s touring band. In addition he’s helped write songs for multiple top artists in Nashville. Now he’s stepping into the spotlight with Norman Rockwell World, an album that perfectly demonstrates how you can sound both traditional and modern.

The opener “Old Hat” greets you with some swanky licks that show up throughout the song, as Hyde sings of old-fashioned ways in a new world. Despite an ever-changing world, Hyde insists there’s still a lot of people left who like to do things the old way. The hook is particularly good, as it sticks with you immediately. This segues right into “Fiction,” which tackles lies and deception in a world filled with them. Hyde slyly suggests he “can’t write enough fiction, to keep up with the truth.” This feels like something Church would cut on one of his albums by replying to a troubling situation with a witty response.¬†“Baby by Tonight” is without a doubt one of the highlights of the album, as it wins you over with its smooth, So-Cal influences. The song revolves around a man trying to reach his baby by the end of the night and I think Hyde does a great job of conveying the urgency of the lyrics. Not to mention it’s another solid hook.

“Cold” is your classic breakup country song, where the fires all gone in the relationship and both are left feeling cold. I think the production really does it’s job on this song, as the combination of crashing drums and piano help convey the feelings of the lyrics. The drum play shines again on “The Filter,” which is another standout of the album. This is really the song where I feel Hyde is able to meld traditional and modern the best. It’s got a decidedly country feel, but it’s also soaring and infectious. The lyrics are equally great, as the song is about the mix of emotions when someone breaks up with you. There’s leftover love, a new and resentful hate, and a regret over how it all went down. This is one of those songs that just gets everything right.

Hyde takes a funky turn with the album on “Cabin Fever.” It’s a sex jam about your baby wanting to spend all day in bed. I have to say it’s refreshing to hear a country song tackle sex, as nowadays most artists seem too scared to touch the subject so bluntly in fear of offending. The album’s title track gets historical, as the subject is about the picturesque worlds depicted in the paintings of Norman Rockwell. During Rockwell’s time he was often derided for his paintings to be too commercial and now they’re heralded as classics (particularly his commentary on race). Ironically now there are people like Hyde who pine to live in a world like in the paintings where families were happy and people lived in harmony, a stark contrast to the feeling in today’s world. In a fair music world, I think this would be a hit.

Hyde continues to satiate the inner history buff in me on “Henry Ford.” In another clever bit of songwriting, this song is about Hyde giving an interview to a media member. He explains to the interviewer that you don’t have to know Henry Ford, to drive one just like you don’t have to know the artist to understand the song. Creations are a part of a creator and will tell you more than you need to know about them. “One Light Town” features more creative production, as drops of a piano and clangs of a drum dot the song throughout. It’s the kind of interesting production you wish you would hear more from pop country. The lyrics do a great job of painting a picture, as love is likened to one light in a city full of hustle and bustle. It’s the love that shines through all of the noise. Appropriately the album ends with “How the Story Ends,” which has a euphoric and echo-y feel. It’s about seeking forgiveness from God when you sin and guidance when fear and doubt get you down. But despite this Hyde knows how it will all go down in the end through faith. It’s a nice moment of calm to put a cap on the album

Norman Rockwell World is a promising debut album from Jeff Hyde. It demonstrates that he’s an artist that is willing to get creative and adapt in a music world where many are afraid to change. But it’s this embracing of modern flourishes that will put him on many radars, while earning respect for his ability to keep the soul of country in his songs. Norman Rockwell World manages to feel both familiar and strikingly different, ensuring you won’t forget it in a world of forgettable music.

Grade: 7/10

Album’s Top Highlights: The Filter, Norman Rockwell World, Baby by Tonight, One Light Town, Henry Ford


Producer: Ryan Tyndell

Songwriters: Jeff Hyde, Ryan Tyndell, Matt Jenkins, Luke Dick, Casey Beathard, Oscar Charles, Jacob Powell, Clint Daniels, Michael Heeney, Jon Randall

Review – Amanda Shires’ “Leave It Alone”

Amanda Shires promised a brand new direction for her new upcoming album To The Sunset. Up until this point her music has fallen under the singer-songwriter/folk sound. So how much different is this new sound? Well based on the first single “Leave It Alone,” it’s a lot different. And it’s really damn good. The production is decidedly upbeat, hazy and jam-y. It’s got a bit of a dance flavor to it, but you can still hear her husband’s guitar play throughout. The song is about exploring the feelings of love and being drawn in by the allure of your significant other. Many will focus on the new production change, but they would be overlooking the as always great songwriting from Shires. There’s so many brilliant descriptive lines throughout such as “your eyes glitter like an eagle’s cage” and “with the words we can’t find like bees inside us swarming.” Love songs are a dime-a-dozen, but the great songwriters continue to find ways to make them sound fresh and exciting and that’s exactly what Shires does with her songwriting. Shires said she wants to change the Nashville sound and this certainly changes it for the better. “Leave It Alone” is simply great and I can’t wait to hear more on her new album on August 3.

Grade: 9/10

Songwriter: Amanda Shires

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: 7/10

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