Sounds and Artists To Watch
2020 was certainly a crazy year for veteran and new artists alike. With no ability to tour, recording artists had to come up with new and unique ways to get their music out to fans. Though we were confined to our homes, creativity was at an all time high as several of these artists are now poised to have a breakout year in 2021.
Here are 5 rising country artists to watch in 2021 (in alphabetical order).
After her father passed away when she was 12 years old, music became a safe space for Ashlie Amber, one she’s turned into a blossoming career. As a burgeoning country star backed by glossy pop-country production and dreamy vocals, Amber sings of all kinds of love, ranging from the young and heart-fluttering to finding “Revenge” in being happy again, all while harboring the gift of presenting heartache in her own gentle way. 2020 saw the release of the Colorado native’s debut single “Almost Love,” building on that momentum with “My Revenge” and current single “Fight With You,” setting the stage for an even brighter 2021. - Cillea Houghton
Imagine an apartment house where Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers and The Lumineers all live under the same roof, and you’ll understand what Bexar sounds like. Fronted and founded by Chris Ryan and Logan Turner, the band’s name is pronounced “Bear” and it’s named after the Texas county where Ryan grew up, but this is an only-in-Nashville kind of partnership. They met after a random co-writing matchup and quickly discovered something greater than the sum of its parts, fusing Turner’s progressive-roots musicianship and Ryan’s charismatic storytelling. Check out the propulsive “Again” for a preview of their organic country pop. - Chris Parton
2020 was a blockbuster year for Priscilla Block, the breakout star whose Tik Tok stardom led her to a record deal with one of the most prestigious record labels in Music City. Block is like country music’s Meghan Trainor, sharing unflinching honesty with with such relatable lyrics as “I can’t be the only one who likes/Extra fries over exercise” on “Thick Thighs,” with a radio-friendly voice to match. But when “Just About Over You” shot to the top of the iTunes country chart based on the sheer number of social media fans who rallied behind her, it became clear that Block wasn’t just an overnight sensation pivoting the success into the next phase of her career, singing to UMG Nashville. Block’s undeniable voice, self-made status and loyal following prime her to be one of the most attention-worthy country acts in 2021. - CH
The Kentucky native and Sony Nashville/Villa 40 artist is country as it gets. At just 23, Tyler Booth’s artistry is rooted deep in traditional country. With a signature baritone comparable to the likes of Randy Travis, Trace Adkins, Blake Shelton and Josh Turner, Booth truly stands out in the crop of rising newcomers. His reverence for classic country and the authentic hillbilly lifestyle is evident in his catalog of songs. “87 Octane” is a foot-stomping anthem, “Long Comes a Girl” is a good old ode to romance, and a new holiday original, “Mary’s Arms,” highlights the singer’s gift of songwriting and Christian faith. In 2019, Booth also collaborated with Brooks & Dunn on a remake of “Lost and Found,” off the duo’s critically-acclaimed Reboot album. - Jeremy Chua
With the country genre expanding in almost every direction, Shy Carter knows where he’s headed — straight “up.” Already a hit songwriter in pop and hip hop (Charlie Puth, Meghan Trainor, Nelly), his country philosophy is all about feel-good positivity, and he’s used it to help create standouts for Kane Brown (“Worldwide Beautiful”) and Keith Urban (“When God Whispered Your Name”), among others. Now it’s his turn at the mic. Check out “Good Love” and “All Night” for some of the best mood-boosting vocals in the game, and a transcendent sound best described as modern country soul. - CP
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Album Review - Garth Brooks: Fun
We could all use a healthy dose of fun these days, and Garth Brooks is delivering it fourteen-fold in his latest album, which is appropriately titled Fun, set for release November 20th. Brooks is having an almost enviable big time, criss-crossing between styles that include an old-fashioned Texas cowboy tune, a Jamaican-infused number, and a gospel-ish shouter called “Amen.” The joy and playfulness in his vocals are readily apparent, and, in turn, we experience some vicarious fun by happily going along with whatever Brooks has up his eclectic sleeve. It is a trip worth savoring.
Brooks kicks it all off full speed ahead with “The Road I’m On,” which could easily apply to the current state of artistic affairs. The song aptly describes the life of a touring minstrel, and how the road gets in one’s blood and fires up the old adrenaline. ‘The hummin’ of this bluebird is something I’ve been missing,’ Brooks sings in the opening lyric. The excitement of the live show is expertly portrayed in the lines, ‘Each town is a new name, each night is a home game.’ Crunching guitars, a steady drum beat, and complementary B-3 organ help drive the story home, and the tune seems the perfect way to get the good times rolling.
Then comes a nice shift in gear and song theme. Brooks slows things down to a nearly waltz pace with the poignant, “That’s What Cowboys Do.” And what they “do” is generally roam, whether they’re falling for a lady with “deep blue eyes” or facing down a wild rodeo bull. ‘They’re always leavin’ town/Chasin’ sunsets down/It ain’t nothin’ new/Yeah, they’re just passin’ through,’ Brooks explains, with a touch of inevitability in his voice. This is one that George Strait could have easily pulled off, but Brooks proves himself quite capable here, with a clear and easygoing phrasing the lament requires.
Throughout the album, Brooks takes some vocal chances, changing his tone to fit the selection. In “Amen,” best described as an amalgam of gospel and pure funk, Brooks is practically testifying, following the lead of the gospel-influenced opening passage. When he sings, ‘Can I get an Amen,’ it’s forceful, more of a command than a request. Contrast that with “Party Gras (The Mardi Gras Song),” where you’d swear that Oklahoma-born Brooks has some Cajun in his genes. He sounds like a Louisiana boy in this swinging, fiddle-driven number that references such down-on-the-Bayou elements as Zydeco and gumbo. Flexing his vocal muscles even further, Brooks’ voice adopts a bluesy quality in “All Day Long,” parts of which might remind you of his hit “Rodeo,” and lends a little falsetto to the chorus of “(Sometimes You’ve Got to Die To) Live Again,” before ending with a big belt. But none of this ever feels contrived or showy. In keeping with the theme, Brooks is merely having himself a ball, and he wants to let us in on it.
Additional fun songs do abound, as in “Message in a Bottle,” incidentally, not a cover of The Police classic rock staple. “Message” bounces along with a reggae, island feel, complete with steel drums, horns, and a swaying beat. “(A Hard Way to Make An) Easy Livin’” stands as a playful slice of country rock.
But “fun” doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of substance. Part of Brooks’ appeal has always been his willingness to take on timely and important subject matter, and he does so again here. “Where the Cross Don’t Burn” speaks to the friendship between a white youngster and a Black man, set against the backdrop of the older man’s funeral. As the featured guest performer, Charley Pride turns in an emotional rendering of one verse. “(Sometimes You’ve Got to Die To) Live Again” plays into another of Brooks’ strengths, interpreting songs of philosophical uplift, which his fans have long embraced.
The album also features Brooks’ duet with wife Trisha Yearwood on “Shallow,” from the movie A Star Is Born, and his crackling collaboration with Blake Shelton, “Dive Bar.” Overall, there’s a great balance of material, and Brooks has never sounded more poised or self-assured. Now in his late 50s, Brooks still retains the power to deliver the goods and entertain at the same time. Fun belongs right up there with his best work, including No Fences and Ropin’ the Wind.
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Album Review: Keith Urban’s ‘The Speed of Now Part 1'
Keith Urban continues to push genre lines on The Speed of Now Part 1. The 16-track project, out Sept. 18, is the follow-up to Urban’s 2018 genre-bending No. 1 album Graffiti U. On The Speed of Now Part 1, the two-time CMA Entertainer of the Year and Academy of Country Music Awards host is found exploring diverse soundscapes and lyrical concepts tailor-fit for the current times.
Banjo-driven opening track “Out the Cage” was written in quarantine and has Urban lamenting of the current coronavirus pandemic alongside features by Breland and Nile Rodgers. “I miss my friends … Feel like I just live to die/ But that can’t be what life’s about,” he sings on the first verse.
“In some ways, [‘Out the Cage’] is about quarantining and lockdown, but it’s also all kinds of oppression: dead end jobs, crap relationships, anywhere we’re limited or held back,” Urban says. “Negativity and insecurity that holds us back, that’s all part of this song. And it’s ultimately about freeing yourself and how that feels.”
In an interview with CBS Sunday Morning, Urban admits that he didn’t transition smoothly into lockdown. Eventually, though, he got up off the couch and put all his energy into finishing the album during the pandemic.
“There’s a chunk of this record — probably a good third of it — that wouldn’t have happened without what we went through,” he tells CBS Sunday Morning. “I had 70% of the record finished so some of these songs came because of the times, from the times, and were even created during that period as well.”
While Covid-19 has made its way into the project, Urban’s positivity and memorable love songs also take a front seat. Tracks like the uplifting “Soul Food” have Urban singing of how nothing satiates his appetite like his wife’s love while the bluesy “Ain’t It Like a Woman” shines a light how Nicole Kidman always has his back and has saved him from his rocky past. “I know I’m a better man since she came,” he croons on the latter alongside ear-grabbing percussion, soaring electric guitar and mesmerizing vocals. Later, on “Say Something,” he urges listeners to speak up and rock the boat instead of staying silent. “And yes I know words ain’t enough but when the silence becomes so dangerous/ We gotta say something, say something, say something,” he warns.
Urban’s inventive production style shines on arena-ready “With You” with hand-snapped rhythms and an anthemic chorus as well as the feel-good barn burner “Tumbleweed.” Meanwhile, recent country radio singles like the uplifting “God Whispered Your Name” and heartfelt “We Were,” featuring Eric Church, further prove the singer as a mainstay within the genre and on the charts.
Album standouts include “One Too Many” featuring P!nk and soaring piano and guitar ballad “Better Than I Am,” which Urban collaborated with Eg White (Adele) on in London. On “One Too Many,” Urban and P!nk play the role of a couple questioning their relationship alongside spellbinding harmonies while Urban’s emotive voice is highlighted best on the confessional “Better Than I Am” as he openly sings of his flaws.
“I started talking about swimming to keep from drowning and Eg said, ‘I think that’s the opening line,’ and off we went,” Urban says of writing “Better Than I Am.” “Confessing my flaws, failings and mistakes, but being okay with them and striving to be a better person. This song was about capturing that.” On The Speed of Now Part 1, Urban shares a glimpse into his struggles with quarantine while offering a much needed musical escape for listeners. One of the most inventive acts in the genre, Urban continues to experiment with his sound and, as a result, gives country fans the most diverse country project of 2020.
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Lauren Alaina Is ‘Getting Over Him’
Lauren Alaina bares her soul on Getting Over Him, her new EP out today (Sept. 4). The country singer penned each of the project’s six tracks and the emotions span the highs and lows felt following a breakup. Throughout the EP Alaina paints the picture of love gone wrong from the tongue-in-cheek kiss-off “If I Was a Beer” and the pleading “Bar Back,” to the sexy Jon Pardi collaboration “Getting Over Him” and heart-wrenching “What Do You Think Of?”
“It was just me remembering to love myself when someone else doesn’t,” she told Sounds Like Nashville and other media outlets about the project over a Zoom call recently. “I went through two very public breakups and that’s not really ideal, so I decided to write about it … I felt like if I’m going to name it, Getting Over Him, I have to put all sides of the breakup in there. It was a hard couple of years and this quarantine has been crazy alone, but I would rather be alone and have this music than be in a bad relationship and not have it.”
Alaina’s poignant vocals soar on the vulnerable ballad “What Do You Think Of?” as she wonders how an ex remembers her after they said goodbye. Captivating harmonies by Danish pop group Lukas Graham further accentuate the standout duet. A song Alaina almost didn’t include on the project because of its honesty, a series of fortunate events convinced her otherwise.
“It’s really hard for me to listen to it because I was so sad when I wrote it that it makes me sad for the girl that wrote it,” she says. “I was on Dancing With the Stars [after the breakup] and I was trying to pretend like I wasn’t sad all the time because I was on national television. I’m so thankful that Lukas Graham decided to do it with me because that made me have the backbone to put it out.”
The collaboration itself happened serendipitously. She is a writer at Warner Chappell, as is Lukas Graham’s Lukas Forchhammer. His team heard some of the songs she had been submitting to her publisher and asked if she’d be interested in a collaboration. A fan of the band’s “7 Years Old,” Alaina sent another song to the team that didn’t work out. Afterward, while listening to Lukas Graham’s music, she immediately thought of “What Do You Think Of?”
“I almost didn’t send it because I really didn’t want to do this song because it makes me so sad,” she admits. “My manager and publisher were like, ‘We really believe in this song. It’s one of your best songs, let’s just send it and see what they think.’ They completely freaked out over it and now it’s a standout on the EP.”
When recording “What Do You Think Of?” months after she had written the song, Alaina says she had to throw herself back into the breakup mindset in order to get the emotions of heartbreak adequately across to the listener.
“I had to really put myself back to where I was at the time that I wrote it because I needed the vocals to feel true. I’m not that sad anymore and I don’t even feel that mad anymore. I’ve gotten to a place of peace with it, but I had to really share all that,” she says. “I wanted the integrity of the songs and the emotion of the songs to be there so it was an emotional rollercoaster for me. It was very interesting for me to try to tap into those emotions and make sure that they were really there for these songs.”
While the project features its fair share of breakup songs, Alaina says it was important to include empowering tracks like anthemic opener “Run,” the flirty Jon Pardi-assisted “Getting Over Him” and “Bar Back,” where she tells an ex she’ll change churches, coffee shops and their favorite Waffle House, but she’s taking back her favorite bar.
“We all need to be empowered. This is a collection of breakup songs, but they are really empowering breakup songs,” she says. “When I felt empowered, I took the power away from those people and their words and the things that they had to say about me online. As someone who really struggled with that and really had to deal with people putting me down and not feeling super confident, I think I wrote those songs because I needed to hear them.”
Meanwhile, title track “Getting Over Him” came about following Alaina’s breakup and realizing she now had to learn how to “flirt with intent.” The bold song has the singer meeting another man at the bar for a no strings attached rebound. Longtime friend and frequent collaborator Jon Pardi was a natural first choice as duet partner.
“Jon Pardi was an easy pick because he’s a great friend of mine and I sang on his album and I felt like he should return the favor,” she says with a laugh. “I feel like I’ve collaborated with everyone. I’ve probably done 10 to 15 collaborations in this format and I’ve never done one myself. So, I was pretty selective in who I wanted it to be and Jon’s just a really good friend of mine and such a bold personality. This song is bold and I needed the right guy for it. I needed the right guy with the right attitude and Jon felt like the one.”
On “Run,” Alaina offers an uplifting approach on some of life’s biggest moments we all face. Penned with Ben Johnson and Kennedi, the singer-songwriter says “Run” is an extension of previous No. 1 single “Road Less Traveled.”
“I love live songs and it feels like a live song. It’s very inclusive: We’re all born to run. We’re all doing the best we can and we’re all chasing after something,” she says. “I like songs that make us all feel the same because at the end of the day, we are all the same. We have different characters in our stories, but we’re all living out the same stories, they just look a little different.”
Alaina wrote half of the songs on Getting Over Him before the Covid-19 lockdown and the other half during the pandemic through Zoom co-writes. She says time in quarantine has allowed her to take a deep breath and figure out what she wants to say as an artist as well as gave her the time to process her breakups and write about them.
“I was gifted time for that. I wrote all of these songs in different mindsets. Some of them are angry, and some of them are sassy, and some of them are sad. I think the best thing for me to truly share where I am is the music,” she continues. “I’ve really been working on myself and I’ve been trying to write the best music I can.”
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Album Review: Brett Eldredge’s ‘Sunday Drive’
Brett Eldredge reaches new depths on his fifth studio album, Sunday Drive.
In the three years since releasing his self-titled fourth album in 2017, Eldredge has experienced an odyssey of personal growth, going such lengths as to exchange his smart phone for a flip phone and embarking on solo writers retreats to connect with his inner being. The dozen songs that comprise Sunday Drive are the result of this deep cleanse of mind, body and soul. Album co-producers and co-writers Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, the geniuses who worked with Kacey Musgraves on her transcendental Golden Hour, sprinkle their magic onto Sunday Drive, walking arm in arm with Eldredge through each song that pulls at one’s heartstrings in their own unique way.
“What in the world are we all doing here? What do we see when we look in the mirror?” Eldredge ponders in the thought-provoking opening statement on “Where the Heart Is” before pleading over a gentle symphony of strings and piano, “in a world that’s gone cold, show me where the heart is.” While he’s searching for the heart in the album’s opening track, he becomes that sanctuary on “Good Day,” an uplifting message that encourages one to find the sun on a gloomy day where he also delivers the wise vignette, “life is a song that I’m still learning.”
Sunday Drive is filled with little moments that touch one’s soul, whether it’s an extended introduction from an acoustic guitar on “Where the Heart Is” or a one-and-a-half minute instrumental of soft trumpets in “Paris, Illinois,” the latter of which closes the album with a love letter to Eldredge’s hometown that sounds like it was pulled from the soundtrack of a French film in the 1940s. These poetic offerings are never rushed, rather given the space they need to breathe and settle in the listener’s spirit alongside the beautiful lyrics that have Eldredge professing “when those fallin’ stars, don’t line up your dreams, before it breaks your heart, let me be the one you need” or was at once “so broke you could see through me” before finding the light with “eyes wide open to the picture show outside” on “Sunday Drive.”
Eldredge exudes grace throughout this cinematic tapestry, and nowhere is that more apparent than the title track. “Sunday Drive” is the heartbeat of the album – it’s a story, a memory, an old photograph come to life in the form of tear-inducing lyrics about how a moment as seemingly simple as a Sunday drive with loved ones has the power to profoundly shape one’s perspective. Eldredge begins this journey as a child in the backseat of his grandparents’ old-fashioned car, watching the world pass by through the window while catching glimpses of their love along the way. The passage of time later finds the singer in the drivers’ seat, watching his aging parents in the back look out at the world around them that’s both familiar and filled with changes, these experiences teaching him the valuable lessons of how to live, laugh and love. “It’s the ordinary things that mean so much,” Eldredge croons in one of the album’s purest messages.
Though Eldredge has long been known as a romantic, Sunday Drive is not a romance of the heart, but of the soul. It’s a symbol of renewal following Eldredge’s season of soul-searching, one that stands as a masterpiece in his collection and a true work of art in the landscape of modern country music.
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