Album Review: Willie Nelson’s ‘That’s Life’
A common thought you hear expressed from songwriters when they record a song written by someone else is “I picked that song because it sounded like something I had lived,” or that the song was “like something I would’ve written.” Such sentiments are surely the steam that powered country music icon Willie Nelson when he picked songs for his second Frank Sinatra tribute collection, That’s Life.
The follow up to Nelson’s 2018 Sinatra-inspired album My Way, comes only a few months after the Red Headed Stranger’s latest, excellent album of original material, 2020’s First Rose of Spring. Thanks to the boldly vulnerable, expertly translated results of That’s Life, it seems as though the only thing more reliable than Nelson’s ability to churn out one fine record after another is his undying affinity for the jazzy pages of the American Songbook.
For younger country music fans, or for the uninitiated at any age, the notion of Nelson singing Sinatra songs might sound a tad offbeat, but its anything but. Sure, Nelson has long involved himself in some head-scratching collaborations, but for the most part, Nelson has been nothing short of triumphant in terms of working with artists from outside of the country genre. And when it comes to classy pop standards or jazz-inflected efforts, Nelson is nothing if not a grizzled veteran.
Long before he recorded that initial Sinatra tribute record, the Country Music Hall of Famer recorded a killer record with famed jazz bandleader Wynton Marsalis in 2008. And of course, Stardust, the transcendent 1977 LP featuring Nelson’s favorite 20th century pop standards including his take on Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” cemented Nelson as a skilled boundary-hopping recording artist a generation ago.
When viewed through not only Willie’s pop crooner filter, but with the understanding that much of his recent albums deal heavily on the meditation of his own mortality, That’s Life immediately carries more weight than a typical tribute record often will.
It’s not that Nelson has turned this into a gloomy, moody record. Many of the songs are rather playful and have been treated by Nelson and producer Buddy Cannon as such. The album opening “Nice Work if You Can Get It” is a jaunty piano-led number, while “Just In Time” is a jazzed-up, lounge-ready tune where Nelson capably hits a few higher notes than he’s attempted on his own recent records.
Although “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Luck Be a Lady” also fit into the jolly side of the emotional scale, Willie’s voice doesn’t quite keep up with the more up-tempo arrangements. A better vehicle for Willie’s current state of vocal abilities is the title track, where Nelson’s trademark behind-the-beat phrasing fit brilliantly with an elegant electric guitar going for a brisk walk alongside him.
On the lower, slower end of the street lies the dimly lit dive bar where the lonely piano tune “Wee Small Hours of the Morning” would be well suited. One listen to the lush orchestration of “Cottage For Sale” will bring to mind those signature black and white photos of Ol’ Blue Eyes singing into the mic at Capitol Studios with dozens of seated orchestra musicians surrounding him.
On top of blaring brass and a gently galloping piano, “You Make Me Feel So Young” offered the peek into the sunset we’ve seen in the past few Nelson records. Closing out the record, “Lonesome Road” begins as a Sinatra-style mortality tune, but beautifully veers into a flourishing gospel vibe, for an ideal Nelson-tinged coda.
At this point in his remarkable career, it would be missing the point to compare any of Nelson’s releases to other modern country efforts. The question isn’t whether or not this album is a fine record—although it is. The only question that matters now is does this album warrant a place in the collection of the Willie Nelson fan, and that answer is a rather easy yes.
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Blake Shelton Releases Controversial Single ‘Minimum Wage’
Blake Shelton celebrates the all-encompassing power of love in his new single, “Minimum Wage,” releasing the song on January 15, despite a bit of controversy.
Written by Nicolle Galyon, Corey Crowder and Jesse Frasure, the uptempo track features inspiring sonics and an arena-sized vocal from the country superstar, as he leans on his blue-collar roots. It’s built around the idea that true love can make a regular Joe feel like a million bucks, and celebrates not just romance, but the resilience of Shelton’s working class fan base — but he’s already taken some heat for the track.
Even before the song’s release, some online critics noted it makes light of the dire situation many Americans find themselves in, as the Covid-19 pandemic continues and unemployment is still sky high. Others pointed out that as a country superstar, Shelton isn’t exactly hurting for money, so he maybe isn’t the type of artist who should be waving the paycheck-to-paycheck flag. But according to Shelton, those detractors are just looking for something to complain about.
“I just feel like these days, there are people out there who don’t want to know the truth,” he told CMT.com in an exclusive interview. “They just want to hear what they want to hear, and they want to pick a fight. No matter what your intention is, no matter what the truth is, they want it to be something that they can be upset about so that they can get on social media and try to grab a headline. With ‘Minimum Wage,’ at first I thought, ‘Wow, I guess I just I’ve missed something here.’ And the more I read into this, I realized this was really not real. Whatever this backlash is is just four or five people that probably don’t know anything about country music. They clearly hadn’t heard the song or read the lyrics. If they had, they couldn’t feel this way about the song. It’s literally a love song about how if times are tight and you ain’t got much money — as long as you have love and you’re happy — at the end of the day, that’s all any of us can really hope for. You got it if you got that. That’s all that matters.
Shelton said he may be living good these days, but he knows what it means to survive on minimum wage. He talked about playing gigs for free and making $40 a demo for years before his big break — and he also famously worked as a roofer when he first arrived in Nashville — so why shouldn’t he be able to sing about it? But more importantly, that’s not what he feels the song is about. In any case, the superstar said he’s not looking to defend himself by jumping on to a treadmill of social media firestorms.
“We’re at a point now where it doesn’t even deserve a response,” he explained. “That’s why I didn’t come out initially and say anything, because they’re not entitled to a response from me. This is absolutely ridiculous. I looked after the first day when those headlines were popping up, and then for the next week after that, I didn’t see any more. It was hard to find anything negative. If it was something negative about me, it had to do with ‘I hate Blake Shelton’ because of some other reason. Most people were saying, “I don’t get what’s so offensive about this song.” And that made me so happy that Ronnie Dunn came up and spoke out about how he puts his money on the common sense of the common hard-working people out there. And I do, too.”
Blake Shelton is currently back on TV for season 20 of NBC’s The Voice, and expects to release more new music this year.
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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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