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LukeBorn Here Live Here Die Here

If there's one thing Luke Bryan knows how to do, it's to stay in his lane. And why not? It often leads to great chart position. The Deluxe edition of his seventh album "Born Here, Live Here, Die Here" was born out of the pandemic tour stoppage. It includes six new songs and increases the run time to 54 minutes. The original 10 tracks are mostly in the vein of the pop laced chart toppers "One Margarita" and "Knockin' Boots."

With writing credits from the likes of Ross Copperman, Shane McAnally, Ryan Hurd and Rhett Atkins on the latter portion of the deluxe edition, one may think those songs would be a little grittier and the writing deeper. But they stay the course.

"Country Does" is a tribute to core values. It bops along with a danceable melodic structure. The breakup song, "Drink A Little Whiskey Down" is hardly a revenge anthem. It's a polite picture of the protagonist hitting the bottle when he is depressed. Bryan's usual affable delivery actually makes this song feel light-hearted.

"Floatin' This Creek" starts off with promise with banjo and harmonica, but devolves into an obligatory lazy day on the river. Ditto with "Bill Dance." By contrast, "For a Boat" is deeper and likely to resonate with listeners. It is a powerful metaphor of a kid who dreams of having a boat, while his father reminds him that there are more important things than trying to get to all of the places that you're not." Up" is a tedious ode to everything from the sun to a coffee cup. With all due respect to Hurd, the syrupy summer love anthem "Waves" would have been better served if his wife (Maren Morris) had cut it.

The album will likely satisfy Bryan's fan base because it's familiar and sounds good, but with the firepower of the co-writers he chose, it feels like this one came up short.

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ColeCole Swindell Dreams of Better Days in ‘Single Saturday Night’ Video

Cole Swindell lets his mind wander in the new video for “Single Saturday Night,” daydreaming about an end to the COVID-19 pandemic and all the fun that awaits.

Directed by Michael Monaco and Eder Acevedo, the slapstick video for his newest single was filmed while Swindell and his band remained in isolation. With each member stuck on the couch, the team didn’t have much to work with, but somehow found a way to make it one of Swindell’s favorite video experiences. It opens with Swindell drifting off to sleep to the evening news, and winding up in a goofy daydream full of outfit changes and green-screen antics.

“I have loved this song since the first listen and wanted to create a video that was just as special,” Swindell says in a statement. “We had to get really creative shooting because we were still in quarantine, and it ended being one of the most fun videos I’ve ever done. Because of having that extra time I was able to be really involved in the creative and editing process and this video is a snapshot of my quarantine of trying to tune out all of the bad news and dreaming of being back out on the road at live shows with my band and fans.”

Written by Ashley Gorley, Michael Hardy and Mark Holman, Swindell released “Single Saturday Night” in May after postponing his Down to Earth Tour. After a groundswell of support from fans, it is now his next official radio single, and the follow-up to his last Number One, “Love You Too Late.” Swindell expect to restart his Down to Earth Tour on October 1 in Macon, Georgia.

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Mickey Guyton'The boat has been rocked': Mickey Guyton, the Grammys' first Black solo female country nominee

When Mickey Guyton was a little girl growing up in east Texas, she would line her white canopy bed with a cadre of stuffed animals posing as adoring fans and dream about the day she might attend the Grammy awards as a nominee. “I thought I was going to be in the audience wearing this big, glamorous, Whitney Houston-type dress,” Guyton says, calling from her home in LA a month or so away from giving birth to her son, and trying to keep her calico cat, Halle Barry, quiet. The Grammys, like most things in the Covid era, will be different this year. “I didn’t think I’d be in a pandemic, pregnant, among social unrest. It definitely played out a lot different in my mind, you know?”

Guyton is the first Black solo female artist to be nominated in a Grammy country category, for her single Black Like Me; the only previous Black women to be nominated for country music were the Pointer Sisters in 1976. She says she never pictured making history with a song that details the Black experience in an exclusionary genre, or that she would pivot from trying to keep quiet and compliant to being at the forefront of a movement to crack country open to new voices. But now, she says, “the boat has been rocked”. As Guyton sings on her 2015 release Better Than You Left Me, a track that should have been a hit if American country radio were not so committed to moderately talented white men as its bread and butter, “it’s funny what a little time does, baby”.

Hailing from Arlington, the same Texan town as the country superstar Maren Morris, and growing up inspired by LeAnn Rimes, Dolly Parton and the (formerly Dixie) Chicks, Guyton has a voice that can match Carrie Underwood in range and power but which simmers in its own unique and warm twang. She writes intimate ballads as well as the saccharine stuff that genre fans love to hear blasting out while sprawled out with a beer at a festival. But while country music has been fighting to correct the dismal female representation on the radio, Guyton has been left out of a battle that only seemed to include white women. “I felt like I was the forgotten one,” she says.

She moved to country music’s capital, Nashville, but her career stalled even as she kept writing songs such as Black Like Me and What Are You Gonna Tell Her?, a stunning mediation on the disappointments and broken promises of womanhood. Both appear on her Bridges EP, alongside the poppy and delightful Rosé.

Guyton crafted Black Like Me a few years ago, with the murder of Botham Jean, an innocent Black man shot in his home, heavy on her heart and mind. “I circled it around to certain people I trusted in the industry that I knew who had the power to help,” she says. “And the response was like: ‘Wow, this is really powerful. But I need to sit with it for a minute.’”

Its moment eventually came amid the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. As all great county lyrics do, its central chorus line – “If you think we live in the land of the free / You should try to be black like me” – spoke on both a universal and a granular level: to a country in the midst of a racial reckoning, and to a musical genre born from Black traditions that has long denied its origin story. Suddenly Guyton found herself in a new, sometimes reluctant position as an activist.

“[Black Like Me] is so much bigger than my own personal experiences,” Guyton says. “And realising I have to open this little window and bust it open for not only women of colour, but the gay community as well. In order for there to be change in country music, there needs to be such a surge of other types of artists who aren’t just white and male.”

That will finally include herself, too: later this year she will release her debut album, 10 years in the making, that will feature the whole breadth of her talent, and possibly even a “friggin’ dope” trap-country tune. Guyton has also made it a priority to promote other Black women in the genre, but she has wondered whether, in the process, she has been “leading them into the lion’s den”. Even with a Grammy nomination, she still wasn’t getting played on country radio. And after the insurrection at the US Capitol, and country megastar Morgan Wallen being caught on tape saying a racial slur, she found herself crying to her husband, wondering if she was doing the right thing.

“I’ve been putting my neck on the line, saying you can sing country music and be accepted,” she says. “There was a part of me that was also like: but can you? I’ve encouraged so many amazing, talented, beautiful people. But I want to protect the people I am leading into this, too.”

That means speaking out as much as she can, even when it gets uncomfortable. Messages to her on Twitter can be filled with hate and racism, showing how country music can be both a beautiful and deeply broken place. “It’s making some people very angry,” she says. “But we’re waking up.”

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Willie NelsonAlbum 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 SheltonBlake 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 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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