Review – Chris Stapleton’s “Millionaire”

Chris Stapleton is the biggest star in country music right now. I still can’t believe it. I can still remember being one of the few people who was pumped when he released his debut album Traveller. Of course later that year Stapleton performed with Justin Timberlake at the CMA Awards and the rest is history. Last year Stapleton released two albums that were critically acclaimed. He’s coming off his first #1 single at radio with “Broken Halos” and the no-brainer follow-up would without a doubt be “Millionaire.” It’s one of those songs you can instantly click with, as it’s a sentimental love song that avoids becoming saccharine. It’s meaningful and has real heart behind the lyrics, but is also catchy and easily resonates with the listener. This song doesn’t have quite as much influences from blues and soul as Stapleton’s other songs, but it’s still clearly present. What many in country don’t like to admit is that this is part of his widespread appeal. His ability to seamlessly blend country with other genres is what helps makes him so special. While there are several other Stapleton songs I prefer more, I’ll never complain about the ever-growing popularity of Stapleton and the potential for him to gain another hit. Not to mention Kevin Welch will get some well-deserved shine. “Millionaire” will continue the hot streak for Stapleton into 2018.

Grade: Great Love Song

Songwriter: Kevin Welch 

Review – Tami Neilson’s “Stay Outta My Business”

Tami Neilson is a throwback artist in every way. I first came across Neilson and her music when I listened to her fantastic album Dynamite! in 2014. Combing country with soul and rockabilly, Neilson makes both fun and meaningful music. Her voice recalls legends of the genre like Patsy Cline while still sounding fresh and new. Neilson returns this year with her first new music since her 2015 album Don’t Be Afraid. The New Zealand-based artist’s newest album Sassafrass! is set for release on June 1 and lead single “Stay Outta My Business” has just been released. Neilson brings her trademark throwback sound as usual, featuring colorful horns and a lively backing chorus. The song is an anthem to remind nosey people mind themselves and stay out of other’s business. Specifically Neilson goes after people who believe women need a man’s help to succeed in the music industry and the double standards used to attack mothers. Neilson rightly delivers this all with power and gusto. This anthem is not only catchy, but clearly get’s its great message across. Needless to say I’m quite excited to hear what else Neilson has in-store on her new album.

Grade: Top-Notch Anthem

Songwriters: Tami Neilson & Jay Neilson

Album Review – Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Golden Hour’

The trajectory and journey of the career of Kacey Musgraves has been an interesting one. Her major label debut album Same Trailer, Different Park captured heaps of critical acclaim and attention, most notably for her open-minded anthem “Follow Your Arrow.” She then followed it up with Pageant Material, which I found to be a great album that was seemingly ignored by many in the music industry. It was disappointing, but predictable considering it didn’t have any “eye-catching headline” songs and the majority of the music journalism industry only care about their hits and not the music. So before many people who ignored Musgraves since Trailer got on her bandwagon recently, I was already highly anticipating her newest album Golden Hour. Musgraves has consistently improved as a songwriter throughout her career and I felt this could be a moment for her to really step up into the spotlight if she hit a home run. After thorough listens to Golden Hour, this album impressed me from start to finish with its bold risk taking and its deep dive into various emotions.

The album begins with the autobiographical “Slow Burn.” It appropriately has a dreamy, hazy feel as Musgraves croons about taking your time and doing it your own way. The song serves a signal for the rest of the album, which goes places many don’t dare to go in country music. “Lonely Weekend” is an anthem that assures you it’s okay to be alone at times in life. The song has a bubbly tropical feel despite the song tapping into the dark fears of missing out and social pressure. It’s the perfect song for the social media generation, describing the loneliness felt by many despite being more “connected” with each other than ever before in history. “Butterflies” goes against the sarcastic, sly personality Musgraves has largely personified in her songs up to this point. It’s cute, vulnerable and the production of the song even has the feel of butterflies fluttering through a bright blue sky. It also serves as a metaphor of how Musgraves’ outlook on love has went from the unloved caterpillar to blossoming into the pretty and appreciated butterfly.

The spacey sounds of a vocoder greet you on “Oh, What a World.” I absolutely love the utilization of the vocoder throughout this song because it helps sonically frame the lyrics. As the listener it makes you feel like you’re floating in space looking down upon the planet and admiring the mystery and vastness of it all. Then there’s the world of love between a couple, which feels just as deep and magical. This is a song where everything clicks perfectly together to create something beautiful and memorable that will stick with you. “Mother” is a more of an interlude than a song, as Musgraves soberly reflects upon the relationship with her mother after an acid trip. It’s a short and tasteful piano ballad. Musgraves expounds more upon her excitement of falling in love on “Love Is a Wild Thing.” She likens it to an exploration in the wilderness and stumbling upon it, rather than finding it. The instrumentation stays close enough to traditional, until the bridge where there’s a slick beat change that really adds a great spark to the song (credit to the producers Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian).

There are several standout moments throughout this album and one of them without a doubt is “Space Cowboy.” With a title like this you expect something much different from what it is: your classic break-up country ballad. Except it’s set in modern-day, where the cowboy rides off in his Silverado instead of his horse. Then we get to the bridge of the song, which goes into a trippy, steel guitar-laced instrumental that adds more gravitas to the setting of the song (another smart production choice). It’s such a refreshing take all-around in the one of the most oft-treaded spaces in the genre. Heavy drum loops introduce “Happy & Sad,” which might be one of Kacey’s best written songs ever. The song expertly explores the complicated feelings of being happy and sad at the same time, in other words anxiety. It’s the anxiety of losing your happiness and everything crashing down when it’s all going great. I don’t think my words can properly describe how well the lyrics get to the root of this emotion and something you have to feel yourself.

“Velvet Elvis” is a fun and funky jam that will probably make a lot of summer playlists. It’s the kind of the song you want to blare loudly as you drive down the highway with the windows down. I got a strong classic country feel from the very first listen of “Wonder Woman.” It feels like something Dolly Parton would record. As Musgraves sings, she freely admits she isn’t always strong, reliable and is only a human who makes mistakes. It’s starkly honest, showing strength through an expression of fear. I previously did a whole other post dedicated to “High Horse,” a fantastic disco country jam. I will add that it’s ironic country radio casted aside Kacey and then she delivered a song that screams hit.

The album’s title track is probably the most underrated on the whole album. It’s not as flashy, catchy or fun as a lot of the other tracks. But it’s one of those songs that’s instantly comforting, like a ray of sunshine. It’s a new song, but it feels like an old favorite. The album finishes with a fantastic closer in “Rainbow.” The song captures that moment when the storm has finally passed and the light casts upon you again. It’s liberation from anguish and an embrace of capturing a sense of happiness that’s felt elusive for so long.

Golden Hour is an excellent journey through the ups and downs of the spectrum of human emotions. Happiness, sadness, love, confusion, fun, loneliness, togetherness, cockiness, hope and more are all on display. To be human is to feel and this album makes you feel so many things. This a defining moment for Kacey Musgraves, as a songwriter and an artist. Not only showcasing her top-level songwriting, but fearlessly taking the kind of risks that so many artists are outright scared or incapable of taking with their music. Most music released today sounds timid and lacks creativity. This album is full of confidence and charges ahead without letting the unwritten rules of music hold it back. When you cast away life’s preconceptions, you’re truly free as Kacey Musgraves demonstrates with Golden Hour.

Grade: Excellent

Album’s Top Highlights: Happy & Sad, Space Cowboy, High Horse, Oh What a World, Wonder Woman, Golden Hour

Producers: Daniel Tashian, Ian Fitchuk, Kacey Musgraves

Songwriters: Musgraves, Fitchuk, Tashian, Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird, Shane McAnally, Luke Dick, Jesse Frasure, Hillary Lindsey, Amy Wadge, Trent Dabbs, Tommy English

Review – Cam’s “Diane”

The birth of country pop came in the 1950s when people on Music Row realized they needed to re-invent the sound of country music. This was in response to the surge in popularity of rock and roll, which was crushing country music. It saved the genre and today we refer to it as the Nashville sound/countrypolitan. If you asked me where to start listening to country pop, my answer would be Dolly Parton, who perfected the blend of country and pop elements. That’s who Cam went to for inspiration for her newest single “Diane,” a response song to the popular Parton hit “Jolene.” The song is from the point of view of the mistress, who apologizes to the wife (Diane) of the man she’s been cheating with to confess what she’s been doing with Diane’s man. As the mistress pleads in the song, she had no clue he was married and by confessing she would rather the wife hate her than not understand the truth. Ultimately the wife chooses her man over the truth, seemingly not believing the mistress. It’s classic country music storytelling set to a blistering acoustic guitar that’s constantly driving the song forward. It’s infectious and catchy, while at the same time keeping the focus on the great songwriting. Cam hits another home run with “Diane” and I’m anxious to hear more from her upcoming sophomore album.

Grade: Top-Notch Country Pop

Songwriters: Camaron Ochs, Tyler Johnson, Jeff Bhasker 

Review – Kassi Ashton’s “California, Missouri”

Every once in while you come across a new artist that intrigues from the first listen. Kassi Ashton was one of those artists for me with her lead single “California, Missouri.” Jointly released through MCA Nashville and Interscope Records (you don’t see this too often), Ashton is a new artist just breaking onto the scene. One of her inspirations for her music is Chris Stapleton, who proved to her that she didn’t need to follow the set formula. It’s pretty clear in “California, Missouri,” a song with obvious soul, rock and pop influences. It’s a downtrodden song, but also has a tinge of light. The song is about Ashton’s hometown of California, Missouri, your average small town where dreaming big and standing out from the crowd is frowned upon. She expresses her disdain for growing up here, but at the same time can’t shake that small town pride as she pursues her dreams. It’s a conflicting of emotions that people from small towns all know too well. I enjoy the word play Ashton makes with the hook of the song, as it’s showcasing the duality of emotions and where she wants to be versus where she comes from. Ashton also brings a more pop-like delivery with her vocals, more soulful and powerful than your average country artist. It’s this juxtaposition of small town themes and variety of genres that makes “California, Missouri” and Kassi Ashton one of the most interesting new artists to keep an eye on in 2018.

Grade: Solid Mix of Styles & Commentary on Small Town Living

Songwriters: Kassi Ashton, Shane McAnally, Luke Laird

Review – Miranda Lambert’s “Keeper of the Flame”

Among my first reviews on Fusion Country, I wanted to pick artists that exemplify what this blog champions and that’s innovators. Miranda Lambert is an artist who has consistently done this throughout her career and as a result is one of the most important artists in country today. On her latest album The Weight of These Wings you can hear a variety of sounds and styles throughout. Her newest single on that album is one of the best examples, “Keeper of the Flame.” I was thrilled to see this become a single, as it’s one of my favorites from the album. What makes this song immediately stands out is it’s integration of the synthesizer to create a quirky, light rock meets country sound. As a first time listener, it’s a sound that will stand out in the crowd of the usual sounds you hear from the genre. The song itself is about Lambert falling the trail blazers before her and now being the trailblazer herself for future artists. It’s a reminder that you can pay homage to the past, while also creating something new. The song has a strong anthemic feel that hooks you in too. This song is a prime example of good fusion country. And if you haven’t yet, check out the rest of The Weight of These Wings, as it’s a great album.

Grade: Pretty Good! 

Songwriters: Miranda Lambert, Natalie Hemby, Liz Rose

Review – Kacey Musgraves’ “High Horse”

Kacey Musgraves was one of several artists who inspired me to start Fusion Country, so naturally she’s my first review. I had the fortune to see Musgraves live about a month ago and I got to hear several of her new songs on her upcoming album Golden Hour. After hearing them, I could not be more excited for its release. This album should be on your radar. What makes this album so exciting is Kacey goes to whole new places sonically while keeping her excellent songwriting. One of the songs that excited me the most was her closing song, “High Horse.” Normally, Musgraves is known for her slower and more serious songs. But this is a certified jam and most bubbly song she’s ever done. This is a dancing song. The funky, bouncy melody grabs ahold of you and doesn’t let go until you want to hit the replay button. It’s essentially disco country. The song itself is dismissal to jerks who think they’re above the crowd and think themselves better than you. It also puts an emphasis on taking the high road, a nice reminder for all of us. Traditionalists are going to hate this, but don’t let their attitudes hold you back from enjoying this song (as this song says, don’t let them kill the buzz). Because “High Horse” is one of the most fun songs you’ll hear out of country music in 2018.

Grade: Fantastic jam country, dance music!

Songwriters: Kacey Musgraves, Trent Dabbs, Tom Schleiter