The Ultimate Pulse of Country Music (Sept. 1)

Let me introduce you to The Ultimate Pulse of Country Music. This chart takes data from four Billboard country music charts: Digital Song Sales, Album Sales, Airplay and Streaming. I take the numbers from these charts, plug them into my formulas and methodology and it spits out a number I refer to as a Popularity Rating or Pop Rating for short. This determines the order of the top 25 rankings you’ll see below.

What I love about my chart is it’s simple, but fluid and dynamic. It accounts for all types of artists across the board, whether the artist is strong at radio (Chris Lane, Dustin Lynch) or album sales (Chris Stapleton). It allows independent and older artists to enter it too, as three of the four categories are ultimately controlled by you the listeners. Not to mention I feel it’s more inclusive of a variety of styles of country music and women artists. It’s a true real-time indicator of who is popular in country music with built-in natural weights that ensures fairness.

One last thing: I will of course be adding my own personal opinion to the chart with a rating of +1, 0 or -1 based on whether I think the artist’s contributions towards their pop rating are helping, hurting or not effecting the genre. Onto the chart!

  1. Florida Georgia Line (#1 Digital Songs) -1
  2. Luke Combs +1
  3. Jason Aldean (#1 Airplay) +1
  4. Kane Brown (#1 Streaming) -1
  5. Brett Young -1
  6. Thomas Rhett -1
  7. Cole Swindell +1
  8. Dan + Shay +1
  9. Kenny Chesney +1
  10. Chris Stapleton (#1 Album) +1
  11. Miranda Lambert (#1 Airplay) 0
  12. Luke Bryan 0
  13. Eric Church +1
  14. Bebe Rexha -1
  15. Old Dominion 0
  16. Sam Hunt 0
  17. Carrie Underwood 0
  18. Mitchell Tenpenny -1
  19. Dylan Scott -1
  20. Chris Janson +1
  21. Dierks Bentley -1
  22. Russell Dickerson -1
  23. Keith Urban -1
  24. Lauren Alaina 0
  25. Morgan Evans -1

The Ultimate Pulse: -3

Notes & Observations

  • New Arrivals: Chris Janson, Dierks Bentley, Russell Dickerson
  • Gone: Cody Johnson, Chris Lane, Tori Kelly, Morgan Wallen
  • The pulse improves one spot this week to -3, despite no significant difference between the new group of artists to enter the chart and the ones that left. Johnson was expected to leave and the other three were helped significantly by airplay, which they all lost this week. No surprise with these artists.
  • Florida Georgia Line remains atop the chart and actually extend their lead on the rest of the chart, despite a sizable streaming loss this week. Expect them to remain atop next week and extend their lead even more in the next couple weeks, as they just released their new song “Sittin’ Pretty.” It’s selling really well when they’re already #1 in the digital song sales category this week and they could get even more points if their four songs being grouped as an EP count towards album sales.
  • Luke Combs and Jason Aldean both tied for #2 this week, but Combs gets it based on tiebreaker rules (if you missed the explanation for this, see last week’s chart). Combs will eventually hit the #1 spot on the chart, as he continues to put up big sales and streaming numbers. When his airplay starts peaking, he should start seriously challenging for the #1 spot.
  • Aldean with another week of consistent numbers across the board, as he tops airplay for a second straight week.
  • Kane Brown drops to #4, as he takes a sizable loss in digital song sales. But he continues to put up monster streaming numbers and takes the #1 streaming spot from Florida Georgia Line.
  • As expected Cole Swindell makes a big jump into the top ten with the release of his new album. He made great gains across the board and it’ll be interesting to see if “Dad’s Old Number” continues to sell well. It could be a future single. It’ll be interesting to see how his album continues to sell too.
  • Dan + Shay actually tied Swindell, but lost on tiebreaker due to losing airplay this week.
  • Kenny Chesney fell in three out of four categories this week and should lose airplay next week. Expect him to fall more as his team begins to work his new single “Better Boat.”
  • Chris Stapleton makes his debut in the top ten this week, beating Miranda Lambert in tiebreaker rules. With his consistent album and streaming numbers, Stapleton is a top 15 lock. With some help in digital song sales and/or airplay, he can consistently be top ten.
  • Eric Church makes a nice leap up to #13 this week, beating Bebe Rexha on tiebreaker rules. The gain is thanks to “Heart Like a Wheel” selling quite well.
  • Despite gaining in points thanks to airplay, Old Dominion somehow manages to lose positions on the chart this week. Other artists simply had an even better week than the group.
  • Carrie Underwood and Dylan Scott are each slowly climbing the chart thanks to increases in airplay.
  • Mitchell Tenpenny makes consistent gains across the board to jump into the top 20. As I said before, he’s unfortunately not going to way. I think he’s definitely tapped into the bro country crowd who never really tired of that terrible sub-genre.
  • There was a whopping five-way tie for #20 on the chart this week. Newcomers Chris Janson and Dierks Bentley got first crack and Janson beat him on tie breakers thanks to just slightly better digital song sales.
  • Russell Dickerson beat out Keith Urban (who continues to fall) who beats out Lauren Alaina based on tie breakers.
  • Morgan Evans barely hangs onto the final spot on the chart this week and should fall off next week. You live by airplay, you fall by airplay.

Next Five Artists Knocking on the Door of the Top 25

  1. Jon Pardi
  2. Sugarland
  3. Taylor Swift
  4. Chris Young
  5. Maren Morris

Be sure to weigh in with your thoughts below and feel free to make predictions for next week’s rankings. Feel free to ask questions if you need any clarification on the methodology and rankings.

Album Review – Dee White’s ‘Southern Gentleman’ (Side A)

Usually within the first couple of listens to an artist, I can tell if they have the “it” factor. I can tell if there’s something different from your average artist and it’s an exciting feeling to come across an artist like this. After listening to Dee White, he’s most definitely this type of artist. His voice reminds me a lot of the late, great Roy Orbison (tender, yet soulful). White’s approach and style of music is a modern take on the countrypolitan/Nashville sound of the 1960s, which is something I’ve been dying to see in modern country music. White has released his first bits of music, albeit an unusual approach, Side A of his debut album Southern Gentleman. So with this different type of release, I’m going to do a different type of review. I’m going to review Side A today and the second part/conclusion of the review will happen when he releases Side B in 2019.

Southern Gentleman opens up with “Wherever You Go,” a love ballad and ode from a man to his woman that he’ll follow wherever she goes and be by her side. It’s a solid love song and opener. White though really delivers a great one in “Rose of Alabam.” The song is about leaving the comfort of his current woman in Georgia (which he likens to a daisy) for the lust he thinks is love of a woman in Alabama (which he likens to a rose). The comparisons really do a good job demonstrating the complications of leaving love for another love and the differences between the way he views both women. It’s hard to leave something you’re familiar with, but the temptation of the unknown and new is irresistible too.

I enjoy every song on Side A and it can be hard to pick a favorite. But if I have to pick one, it would be “Bucket of Bolts.” The songwriting on this is excellent and speaks to the true talent that White possesses. The opening lyrics just immediately hook you: “Things meant more when I had less/That’s the way it goes I guess/The more I have, I must confess/The more I need.” The lines are so simple, yet are so insightful and resonating with the listener. The song centers around a man’s old car and all of the memories he made with friends in it from years past. And even though he never sees them anymore, he knows he’ll always have those memories. All while he keeps his old car, which symbolizes all of the experiences and emotions of his past. The sentimentality of vehicles and nostalgia are stale topics in country music, but White takes these topics and makes a fantastic song.

“Crazy Man” is a song about a man becoming a better person thanks to the love of his life. He’s shed his wild ways and is now living better. It’s very much along the lines of Chris Stapleton’s “Up To No Good Livin'” and in a different era of country music, this song is a big hit. It’s really these final two songs on Side A where White reminds you of Orbison as he hits the higher notes. “Tell The World I Do” really nails the countrypolitan sound with its lush and orchestral feel, yet also decidedly modern feeling (credit to producers Dan Auerbach & David Ferguson). Too many acts that incorporate a retro sound into their music fail to make it feel modern and it’s a blatant copy and paste of a previous sound. I also don’t get bored when listening to White like other acts that incorporate retro sounds. This song is so smooth and fits White like a glove.

Dee White delivers a great slice of music on Side A and I can’t wait to hear the rest of Southern Gentleman in 2019. White is an artist that you need to keep an eye on, as he truly shows a lot of promise in his first glimpse of music.

Grade (So Far): 9/10

Album’s Top Highlights: Bucket of Bolts, Rose of Alabam, Crazy Man, Tell The World I Do

Producers: Dan Auerbach & David Ferguson

Songwriter: Dee White

The Ultimate Pulse of Country Music (Aug. 25)

On my previous blog Country Perspective I developed many popular features. I’ve developed a few more on this one. But in terms of popularity, none of them touched The Current Pulse of Mainstream Country Radio. To this day I still have people talk to me about it and write about it. For the most part I really enjoyed doing it until eventually I got completely bored with it (along with the entire idea of Country Perspective). I also found it was not the best indicator of the “pulse” of country music in any way, as I find using terrestrial radio as the sole indicator of the popularity of something in this day and age to be highly laughable.

So while I missed the heydays of doing that feature, I knew I would never do it again based on these two reasons. But I did want to continue breaking down charts and numbers on one of my favorite genres of music because I’m a huge data nerd and this marries two of my passions together. I always wanted to develop what I would call the ultimate chart. A chart that fused data from multiple charts to create the ultimate indicator of popularity and relevance in country music. It was just a thought and vague idea. Until now…

Let me introduce you to The Ultimate Pulse of Country Music. This chart takes data from four Billboard country music charts: Digital Song Sales, Album Sales, Airplay and Streaming. I take the numbers from these charts, plug them into my formulas and methodology and it spits out a number I refer to as a Popularity Rating or Pop Rating for short. This determines the order of the top 25 rankings you’ll see below.

What I love about my chart is it’s simple, but fluid and dynamic. It accounts for all types of artists across the board, whether the artist is strong at radio (Chris Lane, Dustin Lynch) or album sales (Chris Stapleton). It allows independent and older artists to enter it too, as three of the four categories are ultimately controlled by you the listeners. Not to mention I feel it’s more inclusive of a variety of styles of country music and women artists. It’s a true real-time indicator of who is popular in country music with built-in natural weights that ensures fairness.

One last thing: I will of course be adding my own personal opinion to the chart with a rating of +1, 0 or -1 based on whether I think the artist’s contributions towards their pop rating are helping, hurting or not effecting the genre. Onto the chart!

  1. Florida Georgia Line (#1 Streaming) -1
  2. Kane Brown (#1 Digital Songs) -1
  3. Thomas Rhett -1
  4. Luke Combs +1
  5. Jason Aldean (#1 Airplay) +1
  6. Brett Young -1
  7. Dan + Shay +1
  8. Kenny Chesney +1
  9. Luke Bryan 0
  10. Miranda Lambert (#1 Airplay) 0
  11. Chris Stapleton (#1 Album) +1
  12. Bebe Rexha -1
  13. Old Dominion 0
  14. Sam Hunt 0
  15. Cole Swindell +1
  16. Cody Johnson +1
  17. Keith Urban -1
  18. Morgan Evans -1
  19. Eric Church +1
  20. Lauren Alaina 0
  21. Dylan Scott -1
  22. Carrie Underwood 0
  23. Mitchell Tenpenny -1
  24. Morgan Wallen -1
  25. Chris Lane -1
  26. Tori Kelly -1

The Ultimate Pulse: -4

Notes & Observations

  • Florida Georgia Line tops the inaugural Ultimate Pulse Chart, just edging out Kane Brown. I should note that they had a much larger lead on my test run chart I did on the previous week’s data. Their biggest strengths come in digital song sales and streaming, as they put up monster numbers in these categories. They also put up solid numbers in the other two categories. So much for them waning in relevancy and popularity, eh?
  • Brown’s strengths and numbers are similar to Florida Georgia Line, although he’s quite low in airplay at the moment. He’s right there with Florida Georgia Line in streaming too, which is no surprise. These two artists both have a big lead on the rest, as they’re nearly 30 points ahead in pop rating on #3.
  • Thomas Rhett has consistent numbers across the board, although at the moment has a particularly strong number in streaming.
  • Luke Combs is doing great streaming numbers, which is what propelled him into the top five this week. He only trails Florida Georgia Line and Kane Brown in this category and not by much.
  • Rounding out the top five is Jason Aldean, who is putting up a strong streaming number himself. This surprised me, as I remember he struggled in streaming a couple of years ago. The other surprise is he’s currently weak in digital song sales. Airplay gives him a boost as he tops the Billboard chart this week.
  • Brett Young, Dan + Shay and Kenny Chesney are all pretty consistent across each category, although Chesney is a bit down in streaming.
  • Luke Bryan and Miranda Lambert ultimately tied for #9 on the chart, but Bryan gets ranked ahead based on my tiebreaker rules. So I might as well explain this rule right here: I look at number of categories contributing strength in. Both though in this scenario contribute strength in three categories (Bryan shockingly brings 0 in streaming, while Lambert brings 0 in album sales). So I go to the next tiebreaker: Solo vs feature contributions. In this case all of Bryan’s contributions are solo, while all of Lambert’s numbers come from being featured on Jason Aldean’s “Drowns the Whiskey.”
  • And while I’m at it I’ll explain the impact of features on the charts. At first I wanted to give half of the points to a featured artist I gave to a solo artist/act. But I realized this would be messy and ultimately hard to judge. Lambert no doubt drove more sales to “Drowns the Whiskey” with her appearance, as her fan base is quite supportive. At the same time Aldean’s fan base is quite big too. You can’t measure the impact of each. Then you have a song like “Meant to Be” where Florida Georgia Line’s feature is the sole reason it’s categorized as country and the only reason Bebe Rexha makes an appearance on this chart. There are other features that aren’t as significant like Lauren Alaina further down the chart. See how it’s complicated? This approach could be adjusted at a later date, but for now it’s the approach I will use.
  • Chris Stapleton unsurprisingly is really strong in album sales and will probably hold the #1 spot in this category a lot. “Tennessee Whiskey” gives him a great streaming number too. It’s a shame I couldn’t incorporate concert sales into this chart (trust me this data is hard and the best source for it is behind a massive pay wall), as Stapleton would be a great beneficiary of it.
  • Sam Hunt’s Montevallo and his massive hit “Body Like a Backroad” are what put him on the chart, despite his most recent single unfortunately flopping.
  • Cole Swindell only sits at #15 this week, but should take a big step-up in next week’s chart with his new album dropping this past Friday. I expect strong gains across all categories.
  • Cody Johnson making an appearance on this chart proved to me that my methodology works. Here’s an independent artist who’s done really solid album sales and has a strong fan base, whose debut single for Warner did massive sales and impact would not be shown if you just looked at airplay. Johnson actually sat #1 on all of iTunes for a day or so, which is incredible. He will probably drop off next week, as his sales have dropped off a ton. It shows though my chart not only shows long-term impact, but short-term impact too.
  • Keith Urban had a big fall off this week from my test chart. He’s almost solely on the chart based on album points.
  • Morgan Evans and Dylan Scott are only on the chart because of country radio. Act surprised. You probably can’t.
  • Eric Church should continue to rise on the lead-up to his new album. Let’s hope!
  • You would expect Carrie Underwood to be higher, but “Cry Pretty” isn’t streaming or selling well. Like Church she should rise with the lead-up to her new album.
  • Alright now I can get to why the top 25 chart has 26 rankings. That’s because there was a four-way tie for the #23 spot on the rankings between Morgan Wallen, Chris Lane, Tori Kelly and Mitchell Tenpenny. Based on the aforementioned tiebreaker, Tenpenny gets first ranking over them based on having strength from three categories. Last week he only had one category, so unfortunately he isn’t going away and only going to rise. He’s then followed by Wallen, who has strength in album sales and streaming. Finally Lane and Kelly, who are solely on the chart thanks to airplay.
  • One more thing: This feature won’t be this long each week, so don’t worry about having to read this wall of text every week. It’ll be more succinct moving forward now that I’ve got all of the rules and methodology of the chart out of the way.

Next Five Artists Knocking on the Door of the Top 25

  1. Zac Brown Band
  2. Jon Pardi
  3. Russell Dickerson
  4. Chris Janson
  5. Garth Brooks

Be sure to weigh in with your thoughts below and feel free to make predictions for next week’s rankings. Feel free to ask questions if you need any clarification on the methodology and rankings.

Classic Review – Eric Church’s ‘Mr. Misunderstood’

On the night of the 2015 CMA Awards everybody expected the biggest news of the night to be Eric Church dropping his surprise new album Mr. Misunderstood. After all he’s one of the biggest artists in country music and it was one of the better-kept secret album releases in recent memory. But then of course Chris Stapleton had his superstar making performance and the rest is history. I will always be thrilled about that performance by Stapleton, but at the same time I will always be a little disappointed that Mr. Misunderstood didn’t get the recognition it truly deserved. To this point it’s arguably the best album from Church that spawned multiple hits and one of the most memorable albums from this era of largely forgettable music.

The album’s title track and lead single kicks this album off. It’s an appropriate opener, as it essentially lays out what this album is all about and that’s Eric Church and his love of music. Church sings about how he grew up as “Mr. Misunderstood,” the kid in the back of the class who didn’t fit in with his friends who “got their rocks off” on top 40 radio. Instead he was the kid who listened to his dad’s vinyl and the likes of Elvis Costello, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Jeff Tweedy (a really cool shout out to three talented artists who have clearly influenced him). It’s an acoustic driven track influenced by southern and heartland rock. There were many things I found relatable about this song and I think many other listeners feel the same when they hear it.

The gospel-influenced “Mistress Named Music” follows. Just like “Mr. Misunderstood,” Church sings of his love of music and how it’s been a part of his life ever since he was a kid listening to the organ player in church. The instrumentation on this song is really well done, perfectly meshing country, rock and gospel to create a compelling and interesting listen. The upbeat and acoustic-driven “Chattanooga Lucy” is the closet thing to a party song on this album, although I wouldn’t classify it as such. It is a very fun song to listen to and move your feet along with. There’s not a lot of depth on this song, but that’s not a problem considering most of this album has a lot of depth and takes on a more serious tone. So this is a nice breakup. It also appears to be a bit of a precursor to his follow-up album Desperate Man.

“Mixed Drinks About Feelings” is a heartbreak song penned solely by Church himself. The man in the song is trying to drink his sorrows away after his woman left him and it’s not helping that much. Church duets on the song with blues artist Susan Tedeschi and their voices go together greatly. Their voices and instrumentation create the perfect mood in the song. There are many great songs throughout this album. But one of the standouts amongst them is “Knives of New Orleans.” The song is about a criminal on the run trying to escape his sins and looking for his getaway key. He wrote the song with the brilliant Travis Meadows and Jeremy Spillman. It’s a true songwriting gem that exemplifies storytelling at it’s best.

One of the more under-looked songs on the album, “Round Here Buzz,” is next. It’s about a man sitting on the hood of his car drinking, as he thinks about the girl who just left him. He’s perfectly content to just sit there and take in everything around him, as his heart heals. Living in a small town is part of the theme of this song too and unlike in The Outsiders, Church avoids being cheesy or unimaginative and instead does a great job describing it in an authentic way.

One of my personal favorites on Mr. Misunderstood is “Kill A Word.” It’s about getting rid of negative words and really negativity in general, as Church says words are something that can’t be unheard or unsaid. The songwriting is really sharp, clever and catchy, while also avoiding the pitfall of overly pandering (hello “We Shall Be Free”). But really what takes this song to another level for me is the vocal performances delivered by Church and guest performers Andrea Davidson and singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens. I have an immense amount of respect for Church including her on such a powerful song and releasing it as a single, even if it unsurprisingly didn’t get embraced by radio.

“Holdin’ My Own” is Church’s ode to his family. Another one penned solely by himself, Church is proud of how he’s been able to survive the early years of his life and how’s he now able to hold his arms around his wife and two boys and do what he loves for a living. You can tell how close and sentimental this song is to Church and his heart shows more on this song than any other on the album.

While I love this entire album, the best song on Mr. Misunderstood is “Record Year.” It’s one of the best songs he’s ever released (which Church co-wrote with fellow fusion country artist Jeff Hyde). “Record Year” is about a man who has just broken up with his girlfriend and turns to his vinyl collection to heal his heart. While he plays these records he slowly heals and not only gets over his heartbreak, but also rediscovers himself and some great music along the way. More than anything it’s a song about finding your way in life when things are at your darkest. When I first wrote about this album, I said this had to be a single and it could be one of his biggest hits. I’m glad to be right, as this song went on to be a big #1 hit for Church.

Mr. Misunderstood comes to a close with “Three Year Old.” Church is once again inspired by his family, particularly his three-year-old son Boone, on this song. He sings about all of the lessons he has learned from him and how it puts into context how simple life is through the eyes of a child. It should also be mentioned his son nicknamed the guitar that Church wrote this album with, “Butter Bean.” So it goes back to where this album all began. This album started off with Church relating back to his younger days and ends with him as an adult watching his own child grow up before his very eyes.

Mr. Misunderstood is a timeless work of music that will be remembered fondly by fans for years to come for its amazing quality and ability to break through the molasses of cookie-cutter music that cluttered mainstream country music. This is all thanks to the growth and maturity shown by Church on this album, a milestone moment in a career that looks to last for several years to come. It’s easy to dub this album a Fusion Country Classic.

Album’s Top Highlights: Record Year, Knives of New Orleans, Kill A Word, Mr. Misunderstood, Mistress Named Music, Chattanooga Lucy

Producer: Jay Joyce

Songwriters: Eric Church, Casey Beathard, Jeff Hyde, Ryan Tyndell, Travis Meadows, Jeremy Spillman, Luke Dick, Monty Criswell

The Toxic Masculinity of “Real Country Fans” is Rotting Country Music’s Core

Country music is a genre built on traditions. Unwittingly at an early age I learned about the tradition of toxic masculinity that plagues country music. I didn’t know at the time how poisonous this mindset was or how ingrained it is in the genre. I didn’t know how it undermines and destroys the credibility of women trying to make country music. But looking back I can remember one conversation amongst friends that sticks with me.

They were discussing who was better between Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. Right away of course the red flag of pitting women of country music against each other, something that fans still do to this day. Me being the one who’s always up for a little bit of music discussion, chimed in that I preferred Underwood’s music. I then heard laughter amongst my friends and one shoots back, “But Taylor Swift is much hotter.” I learned this was not about music quality, but a beauty contest to put it in polite terms. I didn’t like it, but when you’re young and fearful of peer pressure you’re kind of forced to go along with it. I don’t speak to these people anymore.

I bring this story up to highlight how from an early age that boys who listen to country music are seemingly taught that women aren’t to be taken seriously. They’re just there to look at and be judged. But the men who make country music are to be taken seriously. After all this goes back to the days of outlaw country, which has been glorified since it’s incarnation. Waylon, Willie, Merle, George. You know who they are because they’re never stopped being talked about to this day. It wasn’t these brilliant artist’s fault though, but rather the fans of these artists. But I don’t want to get ahead myself. Let’s first define outlaw country.

According to Wikipedia, it’s “a sub-genre of American country music, most popular during the 1970s and early 1980s, sometimes referred to as the outlaw movement or simply outlaw music. The music has its roots in earlier sub-genres like honky-tonk and rockabilly and is characterized by a blend of rock and folk rhythms, country instrumentation and introspective lyrics. The movement began as a reaction to the slick production and popular structures of the Nashville sound developed by record producers like Chet Atkins.”

Let it be known for the record that it was coined outlaw because it was simply a reaction to restrictive measurements placed on artists to sound a certain way, not the themes that many glorify. That leads us to the themes of the songs that these fans take away (never mind the fact this is very little of what the all-time greats of the genre covered in their songs): rough and rowdy men that run from the law, do drugs and alcohol and often lead a reckless lifestyle. It portrays an exciting, tough and ultra-masculine man who plays by his own rules and does what he wants. Cowboy hats and boots are the fashion of choice. It’s no surprise that many young men of the time period and many since gravitate towards this sort of image. Men are pressured since boys to learn how to be the “right man” and how to do “manly things.” These songs reinforce the stereotypes men are taught as normal from their own fathers to shows on television. It’s the right way to be a man and anything that contradicts it is obviously wrong because society says so.

From outlaw country onward this movement combined with traditional country music and Texas country/Red Dirt music have formed this hyper-masculine style and approach to country music that enraptured men. It continued with Hank Williams Jr. in the 80s with his brand of honky-tonk country. In the late 80s there was Keith Whitley, Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis. In the 90s there was George Strait and Alan Jackson. You come to the 2000s onward where you have Eric Church, whose numerous fans have pounded their chest to the fact that Church is “real country.” Today you have Cody Jinks, Whitey Morgan, Turnpike Troubadours and mainstream artists like Jon Pardi, Luke Combs and William Michael Morgan who all have fans who seem to share the same message: This is real country music. This continuation of a brand of masculinity that traces its origins back to outlaw country music.

Again none of these artists I’ve mentioned perpetuate the brand of masculinity in their music that fans created and have kept alive and thriving through the years (except maybe Hank Jr.). It’s fueled by the media and labels, who know what a cash cow and marketing tools are with words like traditional, outlaw, real, authentic. These are words that resonate with people because they seem to hold authority and respect in the eyes of society. And of course if you’re paying attention, I mentioned no women throughout my timeline of “real country music.” That’s because they aren’t considered in these conversations usually. Notice the connection here? Oh sure you can find some people who will mention nowadays the likes of Margo Price or Nikki Lane. If we’re talking historically maybe Jessi Colter or Tanya Tucker will get a mention. But almost always it’s about men and the men being described in the songs. The women are secondary.

(I should note from here on out I will refer to outlaw, traditional and Texas country fans as “real country fans.”)

This is the beginning of the rabbit hole. There are many other aspects to consider. What is often the most derided period of country music by “real country fans”? The 90s, which happen to be one of the best eras for women in country music. There were lots of women country stars constantly played on the radio like Reba, Lee Ann Womack, Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, Martina McBride and many others. Yet you don’t hear these artists ever get glorified by these “real country fans.” The Dixie Chicks, a harbinger of traditional country in the late 90s and early 2000s, don’t get the same shine and respect of the likes of Strait and Jackson. But hey Toby Keith made himself a great career after the group was jettisoned from the genre for having the gall to call out a man.

Then we get to bro country, which you think that the “real country” crowd is on the same side as the people who want equality for women in country music. But you’re not looking close enough. You see the “real country music” crowd don’t hate bro country because it degrades women and treat them as props. It’s because the men aren’t being portrayed manly enough for them in the music. They don’t want to be associated with “pretty boys” in backward baseball caps who incorporate influences from hip-hop and R&B. This just isn’t manly enough for them and directly clashes with the idea of the ideal manly man. I won’t even mention the other conclusion that can be drawn from this and at minimum makes for bad optics for a genre that is pre-dominantly white.

Finally we get to the current state of country radio, where it’s a barren wasteland when it comes to finding the voices of women. Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris are about the only consistent solo women voices you’ll hear. The rest either show up once or get a small feature on a solo guy’s song. Radio “experts” like Keith Hill love to cite data that says women don’t want to listen to women and men even less so. Data that of course was debunked by the late, great Dev Ghosh. But can’t you see why the numbers bear this conclusion for radio guys? Country music is a genre driven and dominated by a masculine brand of country music decade after decade. It’s music about men for men and made by men. It takes on new forms, but at the end of the day it’s all summed up as “real country music.”

It doesn’t have room for women or any man who isn’t willing to conform to the image and brand driven by “real country music.” It has media empires and major label dynasties that gleefully push this brand because it makes a lot of money and is the most proven brand ever in country music. The “real country music” crowd love to whine that they aren’t the center of attention and aren’t dominating the radio charts. But it’s ridiculous because they’ve been driving the culture, rules and image of country music for decades. No matter what trends come along, they all wither away and the genre has some sort of shift back to “real country music.” It’s all one vicious cycle that spins around and around and around.

Unfortunately in the process, the “real country crowd” is going to take down the entire ship with them. Just like jazz and rock music before them, old gatekeepers will drive country music into the irrelevancy graveyard alongside them. The “real country crowd” will cheer this on because they would rather crash the whole car than share it with someone who doesn’t wholly agree with them.

Right now nobody is really sure what the future of this genre holds. But I do know what I would like to see and that’s women leading the way into the future of the genre. Women will not only get their longly deserved equality, but will show the creativity and drive to keep this genre thriving for years to come. Because one thing I think all country fans can agree on is we want a bright future for the genre. We can hold onto the great traditions of the genre, but it’s time we shed some old ones.

Essential Review – Blackberry Smoke’s ‘Like An Arrow’

While much of rock languishes in today’s music world, Blackberry Smoke is thriving. The southern rock/country rock group has yet to put out a bad album and continue to relentlessly tour across the country putting on some of the best live shows you can see. While all of their albums are enjoyable, it’s their 2016 album Like An Arrow that is the true gem of their catalog so far. It was their second album to reach #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and rightly racked up a lot of critical acclaim. If you’re a fan of fusion country, this is an essential album to hear.

This album kicks ass from the moment you hit play on “Waiting for the Thunder.” The impressive roaring guitars hit you in the face like a ton of bricks. The lyrics scathingly take down powerful institutions that put down the men and women who bust their ass to get by. It’s a tornado of a song that just sort of leaves you in awe after hearing it. This may be one of the band’s best songs ever. “Let It Burn” can be interpreted as a dig at Music Row and it’s bullshit or any old small town across the country where people are fed up with the way things are run. Either way the lyrics hit hard and the guitars hit harder.

One of the more sentimental moments on the album is “The Good Life.” It’s about a father passing onto his son the advice his own father gave him when he was young. It’s a song that promotes the values of family, hard work and tradition. The heart behind the lyrics could bring a tear to your eyes. “Running Through Time” is one of those songs that band makes look and sound so easy. I love the soulful touches added in throughout the song, with an organ sneakily playing in the background. That soulful influence shows up again on “Believe You Me,” a song about you controlling your own destiny. Again the guitar work blows me away and combined with the soulful touches it just makes the band’s sound even better.

There are some songs on this album where you just have to sit back and admire the instrumentation work, like on “What Comes Naturally” and “Ought to Know.” The latter especially has a memorable riff in the bridge. The album’s title track is about going through the ups and downs of life. The guitar work on this song is extremely impressive and you’ll find yourself jamming along to this song with ease. Both the lyrics and instrumentation are so damn infectious and catchy. The same can be said about “Workin’ for a Workin’ Man.” Starr and the band sing about the grievances and pains of the workingman under the boss man. It’s a battle cry for everyone who feels short-changed at their jobs and at life. I mean look at lyrics like, “This bait and switch is a son of a bitch, it ain’t workin’ for a workin’ man, I got to shuck and jive just to even survive.” I find it impossible not to be hooked by lyrics like this because it’s not only catchy, but it can have real anger and power behind it thanks to the great delivery by Starr.

One song that sort of sneaks up on you is “Sunrise in Texas.” On the first listen it may not stand out as much as other songs on the album do, but with more listens it just gets better and better. Charlie Starr delivers one of his best vocal performances here, just belting the lyrics with conviction and fire. Then you have the crunchy guitars in the bridge and you just have to marvel at this song. “Ain’t Gonna Wait” leans more country than rock and shows this band could go straight country if they wanted to and sound just as great. But why choose one genre when you can nail two at once? The late, great Gregg Allman of the iconic Allman Brothers joins Blackberry Smoke on the album’s final song, “Free On The Wing.” This song is about finding your way in life and saying goodbye to old stories to say hello to new ones. It felt like this was a special passing of the torch moment between one of the best southern rock groups from yesteryear and arguably the best southern rock group today. To me Like An Arrow is going to be one of the moments that ultimately define the excellent legacy being set by Blackberry Smoke.

Album’s Top Highlights: Waiting For The Thunder, Workin’ for a Workin’ Man, Like an Arrow, The Good Life, Sunrise in Texas, Free on the Wing

Producer: Blackberry Smoke

Songwriters: Charlie Starr, Travis Meadows, Paul Jackson, Brandon Still, Richard Turner, Brit Turner, Michael Tolcher

Album Review – Kenny Chesney’s ‘Songs For The Saints’

I have to be honest. I did not see myself chomping at the bit to discuss new Kenny Chesney music in the year 2018. Take it back two years ago when Chesney released Cosmic Hallelujah, an album I absolutely ripped to shreds for its lazy and uninspiring content. I remember declaring that Chesney would have to make one hell of a turn around to get me to ever take him seriously again. And well here we are, as Chesney delivers one of the most surprising albums I’ve heard this year in Songs For The Saints.

It’s important to know this album is inspired by and revolves around the Virgin Islands and the destruction caused by Hurricane Irma on the islands in 2017. Chesney has a home on one of the islands, Saint John, and felt compelled to give back to a place that’s meant a lot to him. Not only is this album about the islands, but all proceeds for the albums are being donated to relief funds that help rebuild the islands. It’s an incredibly classy and heartfelt move by Chesney and his label. While Chesney’s legacy is defined by beach and island songs at this point, I don’t think I’ve heard this much passion and drive from Chesney in his music in years. His beach music is usually on the casual/party side, but this is the most mature take he’s ever done on this sub-genre of country music.

The album’s opening and title track is a direct ode to the islands. The saints in this song refer to each island, as they were each named after a saint. It’s the perfect opener, as it establishes what this album is all about and that’s the people of the islands, who clearly mean a lot to Chesney. “Every Heart” is a soft and sentimental song about the general struggle everyone shares in life. It’s a little sweet, but a nice message. I really enjoy the little touches in instrumentation in this song, particularly the bouzouki and organ. The lead single of the album, “Get Along”, is my least favorite track of the album. While I can appreciate the message of peace and happiness, I still don’t like the “buy a boat” line in the song. It’s just so consumeristic, although it doesn’t sound as bad I guess in the context of the rest of the album and can be interpreted as more of a throwaway line rather than some subliminal message.

Chesney has recorded several pirate-themed songs over the years, but “Pirate Song” is his best take on the theme yet. I particularly enjoy the details Chesney goes into as he fantasizes the life of a pirate sailing the open seas. By setting the scene well, you as the listener can really picture the life being painted in the song. This is what makes atmospheric songs work. Chesney collaborates with Ziggy Marley on the reggae-influenced “Love for Love City.” Love City is the nickname for St. John, Chesney’s home in the islands. Chesney and Marley sing of the people coming together in good times and need, highlighting the tight-knit nature of the communities on the islands no matter the situation. It’s a peaceful and easy-going song that makes you feel good in many ways.

I thought Carrie Underwood and Ludacris would be the most unlikely collaboration of the year, but Kenny Chesney and Lord Huron top it. Chesney covers the indie rock group’s “Ends of the Earth” and it’s one of my favorite tracks on the album. The song is about the endless thirst for adventure and exploring the unknown. The soaring, spacey production of the song is immediately infectious and memorable. This has my vote for a future single. “Gulf Moon” is another standout on Songs For The Saints. The John Baumann-penned song gives you a look inside a little town along the gulf coast and the lives of the people who inhabit it. The storytelling in this song is absolutely great, as the little details of the surroundings and the people put you right there in the town with them. It’s great to see Chesney give an artist like Baumann a spot on this album and for Chesney it’s a legacy-type song.

“Island Rain” is about the relief and therapeutic attribute of an island rain. It goes on to relate it to general relief from an uncomfortable situation in everyday life. It’s yet another song on this album that does such a great job of relating to the everyday person. This track is a breath of fresh air to a person having a rough day. The touches of steel drum and organ throughout add even more to this peaceful nature. Beach country’s most recognizable face Jimmy Buffett joins Chesney on a cover of Buffett’s “Trying to Reason With Hurricane Season.” The song is about the stress and anxieties of anticipating the impending hurricane season, a regular preparation for those who live in the islands and coasts. While they tire of this yearly happening, they continue to live and deal with hurricane season. It’s another good cover pick from Chesney, as it fits the theme of the album well.

The sing-a-long “We’re All Here” is about finding escapism from the troubles of everyday life, something Chesney has perfected many times in songs and does so again here. These are the kinds of simple songs that may not offer much variety, but it’s a comforting familiarity to many. The album’s closing track “Better Boat” is perhaps one of the best songs Chesney has ever recorded. Written by Travis Meadows and Liz Rose, the song is about getting better at coping with the everyday struggles and stress of life. This is likened to learning how to build a better boat, which is such an apt and fitting metaphor. Chesney is joined on the song by a wonderful vocalist in Mindy Smith, who adds another layer with her harmonies with Chesney. There’s so much heart and truth in the lyrics that you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t connect with this song. It’s a small reminder of what country music is all about.

Songs For The Saints will go down as one of Kenny Chesney’s best albums at the end of his career. On this album he casts away the lazy tropes and paper-thin depth that has plagued his career at times and delivers an album full of songs about love, happiness and finding peace after destruction. This album’s biggest strength is its songwriting, as it’s rooted in a place of reality of real people and places, highlighting the ups and downs of life. The production of this album is pretty good too, as it’s varied and does a wonderful job of weaving reggae, island and pop influences throughout. Kenny Chesney should be quite proud of this album, as he delivers a real gem in Songs For The Saints.

Grade: 8/10

Album’s Top Highlights: Better Boat, Gulf Moon, Ends of the Earth, Island Rain, Love for Love City, Trying to Reason With Hurricane Season

Producers: Kenny Chesney & Buddy Cannon

Songwriters: Kenny Chesney, Tom Douglas, Scooter Carusoe, Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, Ross Copperman, Jon Randall, Ben Schneider, John Baumann, Mac McAnally, Jimmy Buffett, Casey Beathard, David Lee Murphy, Travis Meadows, Liz Rose