As the year winds down, country steps into the national spotlight.
The genre’s stars seem to be everywhere on TV specials and at media events these days. Which is the perfect time to be releasing headline-making new music.
Stepping up the the plate today are Alan Jackson, Old Dominion, Walker Hayes, Kameron Marlowe and Taylor Swift, all with superb fresh sounds. The Disc of the Day goes to Adele with our own Chris Stapleton, adding more than a little to the pop superstar’s performance.
I don’t know much about her, but the DISCovery Award winner is Madeline Edwards.
AMERICAN BLONDE / “Quicksand”
Writers: Jimmy Nash/Natalia Morris; Producer: Cliff Downs; Label: AB
– The Mississippi-bred Morris sisters are feisty and fierce on this downbeat rocker about a dissolving relationship. The tune is rather repetitive, but there’s plenty of energy and attitude.
ADELE & CHRIS STAPLETON / “Easy On Me”
Writers: Adele Adkins/Greg Kurstin; Producer: Greg Kurstin; Label: Columbia
– The simple piano-and-rhythm accompaniment stays in the background to let both voices shine in the spotlight on this stunning ballad. The harmony performance by Stapleton is exquisite. Supple, soulful and powerful. There are few vocalists who can stand toe-to-with Adele, but this mighty man can. And does.
DALLAS SMITH / “Hide From a Broken Heart”
Writers: Mark Holman/Lauren LaRue/Ernest Keith Smith/Geoff Warburton; Producer: Joey Moi; Label: Big Loud
– Smith was just named Canada’s country Entertainer of the Year for the third consecutive time. Judging by his current single, I can’t explain it. The formulaic song, jumbled production and generic vocal performance went in one ear and out the other.
WALKER HAYES / “AA”
Writers: Walker Hayes/Shane McAnally/Luke Laird; Producer: Joe Thibodeaux/Shane McAnally/Scott Johnson; Label: Monument Records
– Hardly anything in the lyric rhymes. The track is a looped groove. He doesn’t really sing. But you know what? As was the case with “Fancy Like,” this guy taps directly into a blue-collar mindset that is absolutely the Truth. He’s just trying to get along like an ordinary fella, resisting the lure of alcohol while raising his kids, making a living and loving his wife. I hear ya, bro.
MADELINE EDWARDS / “Best Revenge”
Writers: Joy Lippard Hanna/Klare Essad/Madeline Edwards; Producer: Gena Johnson; Label: ME
– She was the “unknown” in the vocal trio on the CMA Awards with Mickey Guyton and Brittney Spencer. Her sultry, midtempo single reveals a husky, throaty vocalist with a tremendous intimacy that communicates really well. The song is cool, too: “The best revenge is moving on.”
OLD DOMINION / “No Hard Feelings”
Writers: Matthew Ramsey/Trevor Rosen/Whit Sellers/Geoff Sprung/Brad Tursi/Shane McAnally; Producer: Old Dominion/Shane McAnally; Label: Arista
– Ridiculously catchy and utterly irresistible. If the rump-shaking rhythm doesn’t get you, the jaunty, melodic singing will. Galloping talent from the Vocal Group of the Year.
COLE SWINDELL & LAINEY WILSON / “Never Say Never”
Writers: Cole Swindell/Jessi Alexander/Chase McGill; Producer: Zach Crowell; Label: Warner
– Both singers are coming off huge hits (”Single Saturday Night” and “Things a Man Oughta Know,” respectively). This choppy, bombastic, loud effort doesn’t measure up to either of its predecessors. It also has one of those irritating, shrieking rock guitar solos. Pass.
HAILEY WHITTERS / “Heartland”
Writers: Hailey Whitters/Nicolle Galyon/Forest Whitehead; Producer: Jake Gear/Hailey Whitters; Label: Big Loud
– This troubadour has proved herself as a major talent over and over again. Her current tune is a winning meditation on life and love. As always, she is delightfully melodic and endearingly sincere. She has just landed a Song of the Year Grammy nomination as a co-writer on “A Beautiful Noise” (sung by Alicia Keys & Brandi Carlile). There are eight (!) writers credited on the song, so you know somebody is getting a free ride. I’m guessing it’s not her.
ALAN JACKSON / “Racing the Dark”
Writers: Alan Jackson/Mattie Jackson Selecman; Producer: Keith Stegall; Label: ACR/EMI
– Daughter Mattie wrote the lyrics, and daddy Alan put them to music and then recorded this extraordinary, beautifully country, vocal performance. It’s mini-masterpiece about healing, which is something Mattie has learned about following the tragic death of her husband. She also has an inspirational book exploring grief and God, titled Lemons on Friday.
KAMERON MARLOWE / “Steady Heart”
Writers: Kameron Marlowe/Jessi Alexander/Dan Isbell; Producer: Dann Huff; Label: Columbia
– OMG, how romantic is this? His soulful singing has always pierced my heart, but never more so than on this terrifically warm, tender paean to True Love. A song to make you dreamy, soft, grateful and swoony.
TAYLOR SWIFT & CHRIS STAPLETON / “I Bet You Think About Me”
Writers: Taylor Swift/Lori McKenna; Producer: Aaron Dessner/Taylor Swift; Label: Republic/MCA
– She’s the working-class gal who married the upper-crust dude, and it didn’t work out. Like, spectacularly wrong. So she wrote a song excoriating him (surprise). The hilarious video (directed by Blake Lively) is a fantastic mini movie. The previously unreleased song dates from her country-music days, and the addition of Stapleton’s harmony voice underscores the point.
CALLISTA CLARK / “Real To Me”
Writers: Callista Clark/Cameron Jaymes/Laura Veltz; Producer: Nathan Chapman; Label: Big Machine
– She sings so well. She’s only 18, and this soul-pop stomp points the way toward something more promising than her current radio tune.