What place does country have in the world of music in 2019? Financially, quite a big one but culturally, the mainstream is lacking. The genre’s quiet yet surprisingly dense audience in the UK should fear not however, as for some reason unknown to this writer (based some 4,000 miles from Nashville), a large amount of country’s key players, whether up and coming or of established gargantuan popularity, all decided to release music last Friday. Maybe they got the memo that it was finally above 10°C in the Nottingham area and the entire city was drinking Coronas in The Canalhouse. Who knows. But a fair amount of the tunes dropped were good, which is good.
Luke Bryan – “Knockin’ Boots” (single)
We kick things off with a country megastar who continually proves his ability to fill stadiums and cornfields alike all year round across the US, Georgia’s own Luke Bryan. His new single “Knockin’ Boots” comes almost a year and a half after his inconsistent and scattered last studio record ‘What Makes You Country,’ and in short, it’s refreshingly grounded. The first thing to strike the listener is the understated and sparse production, which marks a welcome departure from the densely-layered guitars and unwarranted trap beats found all over his last album. The track as a whole puts a lot of emphasis on Bryan’s voice, which is the right move as his southern delivery and impressive vocal range has only improved since his debut over 10 years ago. On the flip side, it’s lyrically very simple to the point where Bryan seems like he’s going out of his way to oversimplify the words, regardless of whether it compromises the smoothness of the phraseology. This is something we’ve come to expect as the singer-songwriter moves into his 7th album cycle, so all in all it’s a catchy return to form for one of the more charismatic figures on country radio.
Blake Shelton – “God’s Country” (single)
Okay I said a “Fair bit of it was good,” I didn’t say all of it was good. If you haven’t already assumed from the title, this is a 3-and-a-half-minute hyper-dramatic depiction of rural America which wouldn’t sound out of place in The Lord of the Rings if the Battle of Gondor was fought in a cornfield in South Carolina. With hilariously overblown church bells, screams and other unidentifiable distressing sounds to top it off, this new single sounds like Shelton ignored everything that made his last record, the easy-going ‘Texoma Shore,’ so great and has exclusively listened to Imagine Dragons since its release. To be fair to the guy, I imagine he had nothing to do with the production and from that point of view, his delivery actually makes for some of the most intense vocal work he’s performed to date. It’s just a shame that if the Confederacy had to pick a new anthem purely from 2019 country radio, it’d be this song.
Midland – “Mr. Lonely” (single)
Texas three-piece Midland, one of the most exciting moderately popular, yet speedily growing country bands at the minute, are back with a hugely-anticipated new single. Midland are 70s/80s neotraditional country revivalists inspired by the likes of George Strait, and most of what they bring to the table is simply very strong songwriting backed up by luscious harmonies and distinct instrumentation. They continue down that dirt road here as “Mr. Lonely” is a fast-paced honkytonk jam which portrays the guy everyone knows to call to go out with when their life’s up shit creek – “I ain’t Mr Right, I’m Mr Right Now/The one all the girls are talking about.” It may not be as emotionally compelling as some of the songs from 2017’s ‘On the Rocks,’ but it’s a sure pick for your next tailgate party.
Desure – “Los Angeles” (single)
From the party to the depressing morning after, the voice of Josh Desure (long-time friend of the aforementioned Midland) almost sounds injured in his moodiest single to date. Beginning with a light drum backing and a set of soft acoustic guitars, “Los Angeles” plays out like a dreary hungover morning after the neon of the city has faded into the daylight – “It’s hard to know I’m leaving you/My swimming pool and this goddamn view/Los Angeles you’re killing me/Lord I can’t live on two hours sleep.” At its climax, the 4-minute song explodes into a hopeless howl into the void of LA in the early hours. Desure is one of the most exciting up-and-coming songwriters going and he writes with a solemn yet relatable acceptance of life’s flaws. Regardless of whether you like country music, this track and his previous two “Stranded Son” and “Kick Rocks” are packed with emotion and are absolutely worth a listen.
Jake Owen – ‘Greetings from…Jake’ (album)
Inoffensive. In a word, that’s what this album is. While it sounds humble, this is quite the impressive feat for a country pop album in 2019. Jake Owen seemed to be turning a fresh page with last year’s self-titled EP, his first release after departing RCA for independent label Big Loud Records, as it showcased a more roots-y, less brash side to the singer-songwriter, and he continues that to an extent on his new full-length.
Without a doubt a highlight is the opening, previously released track “Down to the Honkytonk” – a small-town easy life anthem which manages to come across sincere despite Owen’s multimillion-dollar music career and surely lucrative role as a judge on the USA Network’s reality series ‘Real Country.’ That’s somewhat the theme for this album – despite how many sins it commits, its concise songwriting and consistent production seem to allow it forgiveness.
The record has all the key features of a pop country album – “Catch a Cold One” and “Drink All Day” pay homage to a good ol’ cold long neck beer on a summery backdrop which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Train album. The subject matter of the latter song constitutes (and I’m not joking) an alcoholic fisherman who can only catch fish when he’s drunk. Owen manages to let this one slide with the chorus lyric “You can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning”. The sun-drenched idealism is just impossible to hate.
“Greetings From” also has its heartfelt moments (also with beer). “In It” is a reflective ballad which reminisces a love gone by – “There’s music and lights and your left hand has a beer in it/I hope the coast is clear in it.” Incredibly, despite the record’s clichés and unhealthy obsession with beer and beaches, Owen still manages to make tracks like this come across honest – “I love you and I’ll leave it at that/It’s okay if you don’t look back.”“Mexico in Our Minds” is a dreamy romantic tune centred around a momentary urge to visit Mexico (somewhat refreshing in the current American political climate). Your beer reference comes in at precisely one minute where Owen and his significant other are “Actin’ like this Bud Light is a Corona and lime/And this green grass is that sand so white.” First world problems, eh.
All in all, there is absolutely nothing wrong with sticking this entire album on during the nice, globally-warmed summer nights that are surely ahead of us. In fact, I’d probably join you. It’s got drinking anthems, rural reflections and seaside slow-dances in equal measure. It could do with cutting down a couple of its 14 tracks, but “Greetings From” sees Jake Owen at his most excusably charming.
To sum up, last Friday was a hopeful day for country music. As we start the slow transition away from the sickly, over-produced bro-country of the mid 2000s (I’m looking at you, Florida Georgia Line), the sunset on the horizon looks bright, though still distant, for country music. More of this please.