As soon as Blackberry Smoke start playing, it’s like the air gets thick and swampy. For well over a decade now, the Southern rock quintet have made a name for themselves with their gritty country and blues guitar riffs, vivid storytelling and frontman Charlie Starr’s distinct vocals, delivered with a hint of his Southern drawl.
While ‘Southern rock’ is a good catch-all generalization, it’s often hard to place Blackberry Smoke into just one genre, and they’re OK with that. In fact, a number of rock legends from the South are fans, including Gregg Allman—who sings the group’s praises as being “the band that will put Southern Rock back on the map”—and ZZ Top‘s Billy Gibbons, who frequently jams onstage with them.
“We never sat down and thought, ‘We’re a Southern rock band,’” frontman Charlie Starr tells me over the phone. “We’re just a rock & roll band from Georgia. So are R.E.M. They play the kind of music that makes them feel comfortable and so do we. Plus, I have a pretty Southern accent and Michael Stipe doesn’t, so the singing comes across in a different way.”
“I’ve always appreciated albums that have a lot to offer lyrically and musically,” Starr says, a few days before the release of Blackberry Smoke’s fourth album, Holding All the Roses. “Nobody wants to buy an album and listen to it and all the songs sound the same, that’s a bummer. We’ve always tried to approach an album like an album. Have it be a bit of a roller coaster ride where you have songs with different feel, different subject matter.”
While the album takes the listener on a journey, it also shows Blackberry Smoke’s evolution as a band. This time around, they’re using more textures, haunting string features and keyboard interludes unheard of on the band’s previous releases. Throughout its 12 tracks, Holding All the Roses has songs about women, the devil, loneliness and seeing a woman in the moon on the fittingly titled,”Woman In the Moon.”
“It feels good to me to continue to evolve and not be stuck in a rut,” he says. “There’s something to be said about allowing yourself freedom musically. We’re lucky, we don’t really have to answer to anyone. We don’t have a major label breathing down our necks that says, ‘This is not working.’ We appreciate that freedom.”
If you watched the GRAMMY Awards earlier this month, than you’ll remember Brandy Clark’s performance of “Hold My Hand” with Dwight Yoakam. A moving song, it was by far one of my favorite performances of the night. Listen to it below and to learn more about Brandy’s GRAMMY nominated album 12 Stories from my interview with her for Radio.com.
Country singer-songwriter Brandy Clark almost never released her GRAMMY-nominated debut album 12 Stories.
“Had it been up to just me it wouldn’t have happened,” she told me last year. “At the time, I wasn’t looking to make a record. I thought that my chance at having an artist career had passed me. I was really focused on songwriting and didn’t even entertain that idea.”
Brandy had already penned hits for The Band Perry (“Better Dig Two)”, Miranda Lambert (“Mama’s Broken Heart”) and Kacey Musgraves (“Follow Your Arrow”), and she was content with her career as a songwriter. But that soon all changed.
“Emilie Marchbanks, who was at Fitzgerald Hartley [management company], approached me about making a record, and I honestly thought she was playing a joke on me at first, because I didn’t know her and she was really funny,” Brandy recalled with a laugh. “She was so over-the-top about her passion for my songs and my singing, and I just thought, ‘Am I on Candid Camera?’”
“It’s been crazy the response it’s getting,” she said with a big smile. “There were times in that process of getting passed on and it not working out with labels where I would think, ‘Maybe I’m in a bubble…maybe we’re the only ones that love this. We’re the only ones that “Hold My Hand” moves like that.’ For it to come out and see what [people] say on Twitter and Facebook, and then when I play shows, it’s just so gratifying. And just a testament to not give up on something that moves you. I really think that if it moves you, it will move other people.”
On a cold Friday night in January, silence came over a packed crowd at New York’s famed rock club Mercury Lounge. Not the norm for the often sweaty and loud venue, the Bros. Landreth were halfway into their soulful set when lead singer Joey Landreth began to sing “Let It Lie,” the poignant title track off their debut album released earlier that week (Jan. 27).
While the character in the song tells his lover that it’s time to move on, his voice tells a different story. Quiet, full of regret and endless questioning, Joey urges her to let things go while standing alone at the edge of the stage. Soon after, the band joined in. They lessened the quiet, but the crowd remained mesmerized.
Who are these people who can instill such quiet reverence among a normally rowdy audience at an NYC rock club? What is their secret?
The Bros. Landreth hail from Canada, made up of brothers Joey and Dave Landreth and longtime friends Ryan Voth and Ariel Posen. Taking influences from Americana, country, blues and rock, the Bros. Landreth feel like a combination of the Allman Brothers Band and the Eagles, with their blues-inspired guitar licks and memorable harmonies working alongside the pop sensibility and guitar virtuosity of a singer-songwriter like John Mayer.
“Those bands and artists are people who we have definitely spent a lot of time listening to and appreciating,” Joey Landreth says of the comparisons to the Allmans and the Eagles. “When someone picks out your influences like that, it’s pretty touching and very encouraging.”
As far as John Mayer’s influence, guitarist Ariel Posen said the singer changed his outlook on guitar music. “He opened my palette to a whole new style of music I wasn’t really listening to,” Posen confesses.
Bandmate Dave agrees, recalling his former band having played many Mayer covers. But what he most respects about the singer-songwriter is that he stuck to his guns and did his own thing musically.
“He put out a very pop record, and then he built on it, and then he abandoned it to chase down another thing, and then he put out Continuum, which was incredible,” Dave says. “Then he put out that blues record, which was so much fun and he got to shred all over it. And then his last two records are totally beautiful, grown up mature records. I respect the music, respect the man, respect the arc of his career and commitment to his integrity.”
Not unlike Mayer, the Bros. Landreth blend all these influences and passions on their debut album Let It Lie. While Joey admits it is a breakup album, he said it wasn’t intended as such.
“I think it’s served a purpose for some listeners to hopefully be catharsis for them as well. I think it has been,” Joey reflects. He adds, “We met a really drunk, brokenhearted dude one night, and he pulled me aside and was like, ‘Man, number 7.’ He was talking about the seventh song on the record. It was all he could muster.”
Dave Landreth explains that while the writing and recording process is an emotional catharsis for them, it is also a way to connect with music fans.
“When you hit those real poignant moments and connect with someone and their story, and you know that you’ve struck a chord, and for just a second that makes them feel better or pause to think, that’s really cool,” he says. “It’s a neat way to connect with complete strangers.”
For my complete interview with the Bros. Landreth, visit Radio.com.
Last month, Carrie Underwood‘s “Something in the Water” topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart for the seventh week in a row. And yes, that’s significant. Not only does it give the country singer her longest chart-topping run to date, it’s the third-longest running No. 1 for a woman, according to Billboard Country Update.
But it’s more than just numbers. Because as a song, “Something in the Water” (which is now a GRAMMY nominee) is both serious in nature and reflective in tone, making it stand out in today’s country landscape.
Underwood cowrote the song with Chris DeStefano (“Good Girl”) and Brett James (“Jesus Take the Wheel”), and it tells a moving tale of a woman who ends a struggling journey by getting baptized in a river. With Underwood’s powerful vocals, the soaring musical accompaniment and a gospel choir singing “Amazing Grace,” it’s a song that has struck a chord with many country fans and country radio.
The strong popularity of “Something In the Water” got me thinking: Is Carrie Underwood’s song breaking the current trends in country music and opening new doors for meaningful, uplifting songs?
“Bro country” has been discussed over and over again to the point that it’s a tiresome topic in 2015. But that, perhaps, is exactly why Underwood’s song connects. With this song of facing trouble and finding redemption, Underwood appears to be giving listeners something they clearly want and need. Instead of escaping a hard day with alcohol, or a drive down a long dirt road with the windows rolled down, “Something in the Water” chooses a different path.
Somebody said what I’m saying to you,
Opened my eyes and told me the truth.
They said, “Just a little faith, it’ll all get better.”
So I followed that preacher man down to the river and now I’m changed
And now I’m stronger
Lyrically it’s about finding faith, yes, but on a fundamental level it’s about looking inside yourself for the answers to life’s toughest questions. And that introspection is something you don’t often find in popular country singles.
Interestingly, though, “Something in the Water” is actually not the only current country single challenging listeners to dig a little deeper.
Jake Owen‘s introspective “What We Ain’t Got” is another good example. A song that reflects on how we live our own lives, “What We Ain’t Got” is about looking at where we are and appreciating what we have, as Owen told me last year.
“I really related to that song a lot, and I have a lot of friends that I’ve watched work their lives away, too, and sometimes you just have to step back from it,” Owen said.
We ain’t happy where we are
There’s greener grass in the neighbor’s yard
A bigger house and a faster car
We ain’t happy where we are.
Another artist, Sugarland‘s Kristian Bush, also shares a bigger message on his new single “Trailer Hitch.” “You can’t take it with you when you go/ Never seen a hearse with a trailer hitch,” he sings on the chorus.
“It’s just a question, why do we all want to die rich,” Bush told me of the song. “Isn’t there something we can do with that?”
In the song, the narrator gives away all his baseball cards and even his car, because he realizes there are some things more valuable in life than things.
And the list of songs that explore the more meaningful moments in life doesn’t end there. Eric Church‘s No. 1 hit “Talladega” revisits those memorable times in our lives where “we were laughing and living, drinking and wishing,” as Church sings. It’s about the journey, not the destination. In Church’s case, “Talladega” isn’t actually about the famous NASCAR race track, but the fun he and his friends had getting there together.
Like a storm, time rolls on,
You can’t hit pause as we just did.
Most days in life don’t stand out,
But life’s about those days that will, like,
Rockin’ Randall, getting rowdy,
Shooting roman candles at the man in the moon,
Til the Alabama sun was breaking
Like Underwood before them, Maddie and Tae are giving a voice to women on country radio. While the country duo’s debut single “Girl In a Country Song” had them calling out the bros of country radio, their new single “Fly” takes a different turn. A track that urges us all to keep on climbing those insurmountable obstacles and not give up, it’s a welcome and reassuring voice on the radio.
So keep on climbing, though the ground might shake
Just keep on reaching though the lid might break
We’ve come this far, don’t you be scared now
Cause you can learn to fly on the way down
“Maddie and I write what’s true to our hearts and to our own lives,” Tae Dye said recently.
As for Underwood, “Something in the Water” is by no means her first try at confronting serious issues through her music. Her 2013 single “See You Again,” for instance, had us feeling nostalgic for those loved ones we lost. And all the way back in 2005, her six-week No. 1 single “Jesus Take the Wheel” showed the then-newly-crowned American Idol winner was fully capable of handling deeply introspective material, in this case about a troubled soul in in a tough situation who isn’t afraid to ask for assistance.
Additionally, Underwood’s current single “Little Toy Guns” is not shying away from serious subject matter, either. The song is about how words can hurt, as she explained during an interview with Chicago’s US99.5. “It’s about a child hearing her parents fighting,” she said. “Even at a young age she realizes how much they hurt. And she wishes they were plastic and fake, like toys, and they didn’t actually cause any damage.”
In between the coats in the closet
She held on to that heart shaped locket
Staring at a family flawless
But it ain’t a pretty picture tonight
Mom and daddy just won’t stop it
Fightin’ at the drop of the faucet
Cuts through the walls catastrophic
She’s caught in the crossfire
While Underwood has no doubt given the last decade of country music some of its best songs, she is also blessed to have a career that gives her the ability to write and record songs that move her and her music covers a wide-range of topics.
Underwood has long been a strong female in country music who is constantly pushing barriers and inspiring those around her. “Something in the Water” and “Little Toy Guns” as well as songs like “What We Ain’t Got,” “Trailer Hitch,” “Talladega” and “Fly” give me hope that country music will continue to develop in positive, meaningful ways in 2015.
I’m beyond excited to announce that I’ll be hosting another concert this year! It’s been a while since the last one and since I’ve already deemed 2015 as the year females take back country radio, what better way to celebrate then with several artists you will no doubt hear on radio in the coming months?
The lineup will include four acts I’ve witnessed live who no doubt will put on a phenomenal show. I’ve already written about a few of them so now is your chance to see them live!
The show will include performances by Caitlyn Smith, Mary Bragg and Michaela Anne as well as openers Your Ex-Girlfriends with more acts likely announced in the coming weeks. Below are the complete details. Tickets are $15 and the show begins at 7 p.m. on March 13 at New York’s Highline Ballroom. For more information and to purchase tickets visit the venue’s website.
Caitlyn Smith is a GRAMMY-nominated singer-songwriter who has penned songs for Kenny Rogers, Garth Brooks, Lady Antebellum, Cassadee Pope, Meghan Trainor and more. Learn why she is one artist to watch from a recent profile I wrote on her for Radio.com.
Mary Bragg moved to Nashville last year from New York to pursue music full-time. Since then, she has played the famed The Bluebird Cafe several times and is currently working on a new EP that is due out this April. Read more on the singer from a profile I wrote for Billboardand learn why she has one band member from Lady Antebellum to thank for her songwriting chops.
Michaela Anne released one of my favorite albums from last year. Also a recent Nashville transplant, she got her start in the Brooklyn music scene. Learn why she’s one of several females to watch this year.
Your Ex-Girlfriends are a phenomenal all-female country cover band that will get everyone on the dance floor. And if you’re not dancing along something is seriously wrong. Come early for the fun! Complete details below.
Who: Caitlyn Smith, Mary Bragg, Michaela Anne, Your-Ex Girlfriends What: A female country showcase you won’t forget Where:Highline Ballroom, 431 W. 16th St. Between 9th Ave and 10th Ave, New York, NY 10011 When: Friday, March 13, 2015 from 7pm-10pm Why: To celebrate the brightest talent in country music! How Much: $15-$18
I met Mary Bragg four years ago at a recording studio in Brooklyn. As soon as she started singing everyone paid attention. The Georgia native’s blend of Americana and country was breathtaking. We talked and she gave me her card, telling me to keep in touch. Anxious to hear some more of her music, I looked her up online and was surprised to learn that Dave Haywood of Lady Antebellum produced her first record. Good friends, she credits him for urging her to write songs.
“He was really the first person to push me to write songs. We were in a band together for three years and he’s like, ‘We’re gonna make a record,’” she told me. “He said, ‘I’m going to send you these MP3s of me playing these random chords and I want you to write some lyrics and melodies.’”
I wound up interviewing her for Billboard and she is one of those artists that I see whenever she plays, whether it’s in New York or as it turns out, in Nashville last October when she made her debut at the famed The Bluebird Cafe.
During her performance at The Bluebird, Mary played “Wildfire” and it gave me chills. I don’t think I was the only one in the room that felt that way as she captivated the hushed and sold-out crowd. Listen to the song below.
Mary Bragg is putting the finishing touches on a new EP, Edge of This Town, which will be released April 7. She’s currently on tour and will be in Brooklyn on Feb. 5. For complete dates, visit her website.
Nearly six years ago, I interviewed singer-songwriter Joshua Radin for Marie Claire. I remember being struck by his honesty about the music industry, his former record label and songwriting. In December, I had the opportunity to catch up with Joshua again before he released his sixth studio album, Onward and Sideways. Just like in 2009, he was extremely open about his recording process and I learned that he first picked up guitar at 30, never with the intention of making a career out of it. Below is an excerpt of my interview.
When singer-songwriter Joshua Radin sat down in his hotel room in Stockholm to write a song to make a new flame fall in love with him, he had no intention for anyone else to hear the music.
“My motivation was to woo her in the old romantic sense of the word,” the 40-year-old singer told me during a phone conversation from his home in L.A. “I would lay in bed all day with the BBC on mute and I would just write, thinking, ‘Will this song make her fall in love with me?’ I wasn’t even thinking of recording the songs for anybody but her.”
Soon enough he had a full body of work, and since the songs did what he set out to accomplish (she fell in love with him and now lives with Radin in L.A.), he decided to release them into the world as his sixth studio album, Onward and Sideways, which was released earlier this month.
“If they had not been successful I might have scrapped them. They are in the true sense a love letter,” Radin says.
Recorded in Stockholm and L.A., Onward and Sideways is 13 tracks of Radin’s delicate singing and vivid storytelling. From the early stages of a relationship on “Another Beginning” to the uncertainty of how to tell his sweetheart how he feels on “Blow Away,” it is as if the listener is inside that Stockholm hotel room as Radin performs the songs.
Which is exactly what he intended. “It’s like I’m telling a story to one person and they’re eavesdropping in a conversation,” he says. “There’s no way I would have been able to tell this woman how I truly felt about her, unless I wrote it in song.”
When asked if the songs from Onward and Sideways convinced his girlfriend to move to L.A. with him, he laughs.
“Hopefully it was not just the songs,” Radin reflects. “That’s why I really, really love this album, because what it accomplished is exactly what I wanted it to accomplish. Even if it sells just 10 copies, it’s OK. If it doesn’t do well at all commercially, it’s not the end of the world. It’s already achieved what I wanted it to achieve.”
Read my complete interview with Joshua Radin at Radio.com. You can hear his music in the latest Subaru commercial below.
On Friday, (Jan. 16) Hailey Tuck made her New York debut to a packed crowd at Joe’s Pub. Taking the stage shortly after midnight, in a vintage dress and with a mesmerizing voice, it was evident from the very first song that Tuck would leave the crowd wanting more jazz in their lives.
She kicked the night off with a jazzy cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Standing in front of a piano, drum kit and upright bass, it was as if Tuck transported the audience to the roaring 1920s with her voice and jazz-styled songs.
Whether it was the classics or her own take on Maroon 5′s “Sunday Morning,” she impressed. Prefacing “Sunday Morning,” Tuck dedicated the song to the guitarist of Maroon 5 who dated her sister. “I was in love with him. I hope if he hears it he’ll realize he dated the wrong sister,” she said of her childhood crush on James Valentine at the song’s close.
Other highlights included a cover of The Zombies “Tell Her No” as well as Tuck’s own originals like “So In Love.” While she admitted that she planned to get by as a jazz singer by just performing the classics, she said multiple people urged her to write her own music and she soon thought otherwise.
Tuck got her start as a singer at 18 when she bought a one-way ticket to Paris with the dream to become a jazz performer. The Texas native is now readying a new EP, which is due out later this year.
Before the holidays, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Etheridge. This wasn’t your typical artist interview, though. I’d be chatting with Melissa about Brandy Clark, who was recently nominated as Best New Artist at the GRAMMYs, and why Brandy deserves to win the award.
Melissa is a huge fan of Brandy’s, and when I asked her what she thought it meant for country music that Brandy was openly gay she confessed that she had no clue that she was and from the sound of her voice on the phone, it was evident that she was ecstatic. She even told me that she’d love to collaborate with Brandy in the future. Read an excerpt of my piece, an As Told To with Melissa Etheridge below. For the full chat, visit Radio.com.
“I’m a big fan of really classic country music. When I hear Brandy Clark, she reminds me of what I loved about Tammy Wynette, what I loved about Loretta Lynn. They were singing about the real woman’s experience.
There’s nothing slick about [Clark]. She is genuine. She’s a great writer. She knows how to write a great song from beginning to end, each verse, each line. I love that type of writing and singing and that kind of country music.
Oh my God, I did not know that she is gay. Lord have mercy, I’m jumping up and down here. Do you know what I love? I love that I read everything about her and it did not say that. It wasn’t like my bio 20 years ago. That was the first thing, that I was gay. Wow, well that makes me very happy.
I know that a couple artists have come out in country music. I feel like the boundaries that have kept people apart and kept people out of certain areas of music are coming down. I really wish the best for her. I’ve always stood by the thought: “If you are talented and honest about who you are and can deliver the goods and you don’t blame any failures because you are gay. If you just make it part of your life, people will accept it and you can succeed.” I think I’m starting to see that, and that’s really beautiful.
I just wish her the best, it just makes me so happy, her nomination. I will be watching for her. I hope she gets to perform something at the GRAMMYs, you never know.
Maybe they will invite me down there [to Nashville] someday now. Call me, Brandy! I’m available.”
Caitlyn Smith, Kelleigh Bannen, Kelsea Ballerini, Michaela Anne and Mickey Guyton (Courtesy: Spencer Combs, Universal Music Group, Black River Publishing, Five Head Entertainment, Capitol Records Nashville)
While 2014 may not have been a stellar year for females on country radio, it was a memorable year for breakout country acts like Brandy Clark, Angaleena Presley and Maddie and Tae to be introduced to the mainstream.
Last year did, however, wind down with a big No. 1 radio hit for Maddie & Tae and two high-profile GRAMMY nominations for Clark, so we take that as a good sign for things to come. And with additional new female artists continuing to gather attention for their songs, we can already tell that 2015 is setting up to be strong year for women in country music.
I’ve picked out five new female country artists that I feel have both the talent and the potential to break out this year and provide fans with new songs and a fresh point of view. Listen to their music below, then if you like what you hear, put them on your playlist and request their songs at your local radio stations.
Here’s hoping that 2015 will be the year the ladies take back the radio from the bros.
1. Michaela Anne
Michaela Anne is well-known in the Brooklyn alt-country music scene and has opened up for acts like Brandy Clark, Steel Magnolias and country-punk powerhouse Lydia Loveless. On top of that, her excellent 2014 release Ease My Mind separates her from the pack. Whispered vocals are sung over wavering banjo, harmonica and pedal steel, making for the most traditional-sounding country record we’ve heard in a while. Tracks like the yearning “Black and Gray” strike an emotional chord, while title track “Ease My Mind” showcases her fun side.
2. Mickey Guyton
Mickey Guyton is kicking off 2015 with great strides. She made her Opry debut this past weekend, and she just released her very first single to radio on Monday (Jan. 12). Titled “Better Than You Left Me,” it’s a soulful track that shows off her powerhouse singing. On the song, Guyton laments about an ex who left her only to try to win her back months later. But Guyton isn’t having it: she’s stronger and has long moved on. An anthem for anyone who has had their heartbroken, why wouldn’t you root for Guyton?
3. Kelsea Ballerini
Kelsea Ballerini’s latest single “Love Me Like You Mean It” is already getting radio play, which is a huge feat for females in country. The former dancer (yes, she was a ballerina) was also named CMT’s Next Women In Country last year, proving she’s well on her way to representing the ladies of country music. While Ballerini admits her discovery of country music was a bit late, the Knoxville, Tenn. native came on the scene at the perfect time as her single was the most added female debut of 2014.