Seven albums into one of country music’s most-respected and most-unpredictable careers, award-winning singer/songwriter Dierks Bentley continues to grow. His latest evolution comes in the form of RISER, a project due early 2014 that stands as his most personal to date.
Written and recorded in the year following his father’s death, the album draws its title from “I’m A Riser,” a song about resilience and determination. “I’m A Riser” works as a commentary on spiritual, personal and societal recommitment, but it also applies to the competitive battlefield of the music industry. It’s particularly appropriate for an album about rejuvenation delivered by Bentley.
“Life in general has a way of knocking you down,” Bentley says. “It’s different reasons for different folks – could be personal reasons, could be family reasons, your job, drugs, alcohol. That song really applies to anybody that’s lived. There have always been those moments when we have to get back up and get on our feet. They are defining moments…breakthrough moments.”
Accepting change – and growing from it – is a key theme in RISER, and it’s reflected by the tone of the album, which demonstrates a new artistic depth and an extralevel of intensity for Bentley. It evolves from track to track, exuding a range of emotions, all the while impressing upon the listener that Bentley’s instinct for a hit is stronger than ever. Bentley made significant reconfigurations in his creative team to shake up his sonic texture without sacrificing his commercial drive. He re-enlisted executive producer Arturo Buenahora Jr., who worked on Bentley’s first two albums; and utilized producer Ross Copperman, who co-wrote “Tip It On Back” for Bentley’s current album Home.
The new atmosphere yielded the most focused and intense vocals of Bentley’s career. Some were recorded live with the band as the musicians laid down the tracks, but others were captured in less-than-obvious locales. One track’s vocal was recorded on Bentley’s tour bus. Still others were cut at Copperman’s house with the producer literally at Bentley’s side, pushing him to some of his most emotional, and seasoned, performances.
“It’s not even really a studio,” Bentley says of Copperman’s set-up. “It’s just kind of a corner of the house he’s taken over, so there was a kind of intimacy to the vocal process. It was important to get out of the studio and sing in different places, and to do it with other people in the room. That way, you have an audience and you get a sense of what’s working, what’s not working, when it’s feeling good, not feeling good. It brings a little more emotion and energy out of your voice.”
Since making a life-altering drive with his father from Phoenix to Nashville when he was 19 years old, Bentley has forged his own path in an industry built predominantly on formula. He has mixed elements of modern country, classic country, bluegrass and rock, maintaining an unmistakable identity while constantly reinventing his sound. His album Home debuted at No. 1 and spawned three consecutive chart-topping hits, marking 12 career No. 1 songs for Bentley as a singer and songwriter. His five previous studio albums have sold more than five million copies, garnered 11 GRAMMY nominations and earned him an invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry.
The undeniable success of multi-Platinum singer/songwriter Thomas Rhett brings "an ushering in of country's future" (Rolling Stone) after solidifying three back-to-back No. Ones from his PLATINUM certified sophomore album TANGLED UP (The Valory Music Co.), with the newly minted “T-Shirt,” the 2X PLATINUM six-week No. one "Die A Happy Man” and the PLATINUM “Crash And Burn. He has gone "from a promised next big thing to actually being it” (Noisey) after garnering a Billboard Music Award for "Top Country Song” for “Die A Happy Man,” which also nabbed an ACM and ACCA for “Single Record of the Year.” Following six consecutive No. ones and earning instant airplay after its release, Thomas Rhett now delivers the summertime anthem “Vacation.” He remains on the road this year with sold-out headlining dates and as direct support for Jason Aldean’s SIX STRING CIRCUS TOUR. For a full list of upcoming tour dates and appearances, visit www.thomasrhett.com.
Chris Young is in complete control.
As the RCA Records Nashville recording artist prepares to release his fifth album, due this Fall, Young has taken over responsibility for conceiving, writing, producing and recording the highly anticipated, I’m Comin’ Over.
Looking for a new approach on an album he knew was extremely important, Young hedged his bet by personally writing a check and quietly cutting six songs. When he played the music for surprised Sony Music Nashville executives, there was one simple response: “Keep going.”
Young, a native of nearby Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and a fixture on the scene since his teens, could easily have approached his latest album on auto-pilot. After all, few have had the kind of run he has. This is his fifth major-label album by the age of 30 – a feat rarely accomplished in modern country music. He’s ratcheted up six No. 1 singles, seven Gold and Platinum certifications, and been nominated for the industry’s most prestigious awards – Academy of Country Music, Country Music Association and The Grammys – taking home a handful of notable trophies, including the American Country Countdown Awards’ Breakthrough Artist of the Year and Single of the Year, and the Country Music Association’s Triple Play Award, given to songwriters who have co-authored three or more chart-topping hits in a year.
Prior to that clandestine recording session that would set the tone for the project, fate stepped in as Young wrestled with the direction of this new album. His longtime friend Josh Hoge suggested he jump in on a co-write with mutual friend Corey Crowder. It was a casual suggestion, not a put-together session dreamed up in a publisher’s building on Music Row. And that invitation changed everything for Young.
“It was just very honest and natural and we really, really hit it off,” Young said. “I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do sonically for this record and what I wanted to say. And it’s an important record. Turning 30. I've been doing this for 10 years and you always try to make a statement with each and every record. But this is my fifth record, and after 10 years I better have something important to say.”
Young wrote 9 of the 11 songs, including the title track first single, co-produced the album with Crowder and shepherded each track from demo through final mastering. He knows the LP “inside out, backwards and forwards.”
“It just feels different,” Young said. “There was a lot that changed. The studio band we used was different. This is the first time I've co-produced. Half the songs on the record were written by me, Corey and Josh. That was kind of the nucleus of this record, and that was really different for me. Nothing changed for the sake of change. It changed because it was the right way to go.”
Four of the album’s tracks emerged from the trio’s first seven sessions. Young kept the group coming back to the writer’s room and exciting things continued to happen. Two early tracks proved to be special. “I’m Comin’ Over” became a guidepost for Young and Crowder. Technically, the song is a ballad, but there’s nothing slow and steady about it.
“’I'm Comin’ Over’ honestly is such a sonic bridge for me,” Young said. “It's a bridge between what I sounded like on the last record and what we've done on this one. It's not like I went out and just completely blew up everything I was doing, but there's obviously a lot more loops. There's a lot more stuff that we created in pre-production and brought into the studio along with the musicians. I think that this song is a really good introduction to what you’ll hear on the rest of this record. There's R&B elements that we brought into some of the songs, and you definitely hear that on top of the second verse. It's really simple. It's really short, just a tiny, little moment, but it's definitely stuff that we wouldn't have done in the past.”
“As Chris, Josh and I began writing together, the sonic direction seemed to organically take shape,” shared co-producer and co-writer, Corey Crowder. “We all come from different spaces in the music world and our personalities, working styles and strengths really compliment each other.”
You begin to see the producer in Young emerge with a confident strut on the album’s next track, “Heartbeat.” The song is all elevated heart rate, supplied by a thumping heartbeat pulsing just under the instrumentals.
“Chris and I make a really good team,” Crowder said. “We trust each other’s ears and it really makes the combination work well.”
Young the producer wraps Young the singer’s perfectly mellow traditional country baritone in a more modern context. Many of the songs are bright and bold and aimed for the arena rafters as he moves into the touring headliner’s role, kicking off October 22 with his “I’m Comin’ Over Tour,” featuring openers Eric Paslay and Clare Dunn. “Heartbeat,” for instance will drop right into his live set. And songs like “Sunshine Overtime” and the anthemic “Underdog” are strong arena candidates with their bright colors and racing tempos.
While good times are a heavy presence on the album, Young doesn’t completely leave behind the nuanced emotion of his previous work. “I Know A Guy” and “Sober Saturday Night,” which features Vince Gill on guitar and harmony vocals, help Young round out I’m Comin’ Over with a song for every mood.
“There's a great history of sad songs in country music and I think that a lot of people have lived that,” Young said. “They've had that night where it's like, ‘Man, I'm so depressed, I don't even want to leave my house. I'm just going to sit here. I don't even want to try to drink myself out of being depressed,’ and it's powerful. But I think there are touch points - I think that's really what this record is. Hopefully everybody relates to each one of these songs and they have their own experiences.”
Young formed his appreciation for the history of country music listening and watching closely genre ambassadors like Gill, who is best known as a Grammy Award-winning singer and guitarist. But he’s also emerged a powerful producer, and Young would like to see his career follow a similar path. He knew this from the second he saw Gill in concert as a child, sitting in
the grass at Nashville’s old Starwood Amphitheater, watching the legend perform solo acoustic for a crowd of thousands held at rapt attention.
“I got to sit in his studio and hang out with Vince Gill all day, and it's just such a weird, cool full- circle thing for me,” Young said. “He’s absolutely someone that I put on a pedestal as a vocalist and a person. It’s like, ‘Oh, my God, I want to be known as an artist who is that good.’”
Young exudes a combination of pride and nervous energy as he talks about rolling out I’m Comin’ Over, first, for family and friends, and now for critics and the public. It’s the most personal album Young has recorded, full of accessible moments that grow out of small things like a look, a touch or a broken bond. And for the first time he’s responsible for almost every hook, solo and lyric, right from the start.
Like Gill, Young takes a personal moment or emotion and elevates it with a universal resonance. When he sings of a day at the beach or the lake, it’s because he’s relaying an experience from his own life, not some anonymous songwriter’s. And when you feel his heartbreak, that’s really his heart breaking.
“It’s no secret I’ve fallen in love before,” Young said. “And I’ve fallen out of love. And I’ve definitely had love fall out on me - that makes for several records worth of music right there. Then, when you combine some of the other stuff that we wrote on this record, it gives it a lot of variety, too. I think that’s important. I could just as easily sit down and write an entire an album of love songs, but I think you have to have the love songs and you have to have the stuff you’re going to play when it’s summer and 100 degrees and everybody’s in T-shirts at a festival. It’s a balancing act. You have to have all the colors on the palette and make them work together.”
Maddie & Tae
Maddie Marlow and Taylor Dye never intended to hit a nerve when they sat down on St. Patricks Day and wrote “Girl In A Country Song.” Merely expressing their own reaction to the reductive tilt of today’s BroCountry, the pair and co-writer Aaron Schwerz shamelessly skewered its Xeroxed stereotypes; “Girl” was as much a lark as it was ever “meaningful social commentary.”
Yet the response was so instant and intense, there was no denying it. NPR’s “All Things Considered” cited Maddie & Tae for “turning heads in different ways with their very first single,” Rolling Stone cited them as one of “10 New Artists You Need to Know” and David Letterman couldn’t get the plucky duo to New York fast enough. Even elevated cultural think-tank The Atlantic marveled, “Cheekily appropriating much of the sound of modern country, the two young women directly quote well-known bro-country lyrics and titles...”
No one was more surprised than the natives of Sugar Land, Texas and Ada, Oklahoma. Still in the studio tracking overdubs for “Girl,” they signed their record deal before Dan Huff had even finished four sides on the sunshine’n’moxie pair.
“We wanted to go at it from a girl’s perspective, and we wanted to put ourselves in the shoes of this girl,” says Dye. “You know, how does she feel wearing those cut-off shorts, sitting on the tailgate?”
“Boys, we love you, we want to look good, but it’s not all we’re good for,” Marlow cautions with a laugh. “We are girls with something to say. We were brought up to know how we should be treated.”
Simple as that. But there’s so much more to Maddie & Tae than the song that is either a feminist declaration, an echo of Janet Jackson’s rebuke “I’ve got a name, and it ain’t ‘Baby’,” or this year’s feel-good finger-wag to dumb boys. NPR’s lead pop critic Ann Powers agrees, “Maddie and Tae are more. They’re songwriters, powerful harmonizers, and in the video for ‘Girl In A Country Song,’ natural comediennes.”
One listen to their self-titled EP shows that. The reeling mean-girl send-up “Sierra,” with its bending steel and trotting acoustic guitar, boasts harmonies that turn in on each other and the kind of truth that’s hilarious and straight-up.
“There was this beauty-queen bully from high school who sent my friends and I home in tears plenty of times,” Marlow explains. “In order to get over it, I had to write a song. So I brought the idea of ‘Sierra,’ and started singing, ‘I wish I had something nice to say...’
“Tae and our co-writer Aaron Scherz lit up and ran with it.”
Any one who’s suffered through and survived high school can relate. But the ability to rhyme “Sierra, Sierra, life ain’t all tiaras...” and taking the rejoinder “you’re gonna find out karma’s a...” to the brink is what sets these two late teenagers apart.
Effervescent and savoring every moment, Maddie & Tae laugh when they lean into the cautionary “That high horse you’re riding... can buck you off clean,” then let their harmonies swoop free and high on the outro.
Like a lot of young women, Maddie & Tae grew up on the Dixie Chicks’ full-tilt acoustica. Both dreamers who knew what they wanted early, the pair met at 15 through their vocal coach and came to Nashville for “a summer camp publishing deal.” They met Big Machine’s SVP of A&R Allison Jones – and fate stepped in.
As Tae recalls, “She said, ‘If you really want to pursue this, you will need to move to Nashville.’ I knew that was what I wanted, but moving to Nashville also meant I had to figure out how to graduate from high school early, and Maddie had to turn down college.”
In 2013, it was decided. The pair relocated – and never looked back. Publishing deal in hand, they were immersed in creativity, seeking a voice that was both authentic and truly their own. Like Taylor Swift, the duo knew by speaking their truth, their uniqueness would set them apart.
As Marlow told Rolling Stone Country, “Our whole project revolves around keeping it real and being honest. We didn’t filter anything, because we felt like when it comes from an honest place, the truth will resonate so much better. The thing about Taylor, everything is real and relevant to what she’s going through, and that’s why people connect with her.”
Listening to the double harmonies over an acoustic guitar hope-strung-over-doubt mid-tempo “Fly,” Maddie & Tae’s conviction is evident. Will what’s been built be betrayed? How do you keep the faith when you’re so unsure? Where is the courage to maintain your place when you’re afraid of the outcome?
Not since “Wide Open Spaces” has an act embraced the will to grow so unabashedly. In perfect synchronization, Maddie & Tae sing, “Keep on climbing, though the ground might shake, keep on reaching through the limb might break/ we’ve come this far, don’t be scared now ‘Cause you can’t learn to fly on the way down...”
It’s the sort of song that empowers people wherever they are in life, whatever challenge they may be encountering. Yes, it is about coming of age, but it’s also facing the things that scare you – and having the faith to transcend.
“’Fly’ hits home every time we listen to it,” Dye offers. “We really wanted to write a song that was, ‘You may not have anything figured out, but it doesn’t matter.’”
Indeed. Townes Van Zant wrote, “To live is to fly...” For Maddie & Tae, their wings are in the music. What they feel, how they live, what they dream – this is where they rise. One need only listen to the tumbledown hoedown “Your Side of Town,” that’s all high jinx and higher spirits as they pair warn off a no-good man for the last time, to understand.
Even in the hardcore throw-down, all bucking backbeat and bee-sting guitar, there is a romp and a plucky audacity that shows these young ladies have no interest in letting anything break their spirits. Just as importantly, they fear no fiddles, no banjos, no steel guitars, even as they have bulked up drums that crash and guitars that slash and sting like the big boys.
While Rolling Stone observed, “Cheekily appropriating much of the sound of modern country,” there is so much more to Maddie & Tae than that. Independent thinkers, strong livers, hardcore dreamers, the pair are reaching for the sky – and winking at us all while they do it.
Sometimes, it’s the freshest faces and brightest sounds that pull us in. For Maddie & Tae, who embrace real country, it’s that merge of what’s right now and what they love that sets them apart/captures our imaginations in the best possible way.
When Frankie Ballard was growing up in Battle Creek, Michigan, his father played him one classic album over and over again: Marty Robbins' Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, featuring Robbins' signature hit "El Paso." Now Ballard, a quick-draw guitarist and rough-hewn singer, has cut his own metaphorical gunfighter album, decamping from Nashville to a gritty El Paso studio to record the follow-up to his 2014 breakout Sunshine & Whiskey.
For Ballard, who scored three consecutive Number One singles off Sunshine & Whiskey — "Helluva Life," the title track and "Young & Crazy" — it was imperative that he leave behind the safety of Nashville for the wilds of the Mexico border. Setting up shop at the famed Sonic Ranch, just south of El Paso in Tornillo, Texas, Ballard, producer Marshall Altman (Sunshine & Whiskey) and his band threw themselves headlong into the music, eating and sleeping at the studio. Their goal: make a bona fide album.
"I grew up listening to albums and I loved them as bodies of work," says Ballard. "But today, everyone cuts singles. Even Sunshine & Whiskey was recorded in chunks. We’d go into one studio, cut four, then go into another studio and cut another four. It's groovus interruptus, man."
To keep that groove steady, Ballard went on the lam, leaving Nashville for a few days of bare-bones rehearsals at ground zero for rock & roll and soul, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama. From there, he continued on to the Granada Theater in Dallas for another workshop session, before arriving at the Sonic Ranch, locked and loaded.
"I spur myself sometimes, like getting a metal cleat kicked into your ass so you can go harder. I do that to myself," says Ballard of the grueling road trip to El Paso. "It’s as far away as you can get. I was trying to get my blood moving."
The change of scenery worked. Ballard has created an urgent, thriving record, a project that showcases Frankie the artist. It's the type of album his heroes like Bob Seger and the Rolling Stones made, a collection of 11 songs with a sonic through-line, driven along by swagger but also respect for the music. First single "It All Started With a Beer" is buoyed by equal parts nostalgia and hope.
"On the surface, it’s a love story about two folks meeting in a bar and having a beer. From there, the relationship blossomed into something long lasting and now they’re looking back, going, 'Man, look at this great relationship we got, and it started so simply, with just a beer.' So many people can relate to the idea," Ballard says. "But also, one of the deeper meanings of that song is sometimes the biggest shit that happens to you in life doesn’t start in a big way. That makes me hopeful for the future."
The hard-charging "Cigarette," meanwhile, is unapologetically carnal. With a dirty guitar riff and winking lyrics to match, it's an explosive bit of country-rock, and the first song Ballard worked up at Muscle Shoals.
"It's about lust," says Ballard matter-of-factly. "It’s not really about cigarettes. She could have had a toothpick in her mouth. It’s just sexy, and it pops. It's a head-snapper."
The crunching "El Camino," however, sets the tone for the entire album. With its escapist message of hitting the road, it mirrors Ballard's own exodus from Nashville. "So get me a dog and an El Camino/roll a couple dice at the Indian casino/take this heartache somewhere you've never been before," he sings in the chorus.
"It is a really definitive song for me, and illustrates the sonic space that I’m trying to establish with this album," he says. "If somebody asked, 'Hey, what is this new Frankie Ballard sound?' 'El Camino' would be the song I played them."
"Sweet Time," one of two songs Ballard wrote for the project, celebrates the joys of taking it slow, in both life and romance, while "Wasting Time," although similar in title, is its antithesis: a straight-up rocker. "It is a ripping take," raves Ballard, pointing out the galloping drums that showcase a band in the pocket.
Ballard also emphasizes the rock on a choice cover: his balls-out version of Seger's "You'll Accomp’ny Me." Recorded at one additional session in Los Angeles, where Ballard, ever the perfectionist, revamped two songs he says "betrayed" him in El Paso, the cover song connects the dots of Ballard's career — Seger once hand-picked him to open his tour.
If Ballard has an endgame, it's the longevity of someone like Seger, a career that continues well into the future and transcends any genre. And returns actual, honest playing to the fore.
"I miss musicianship on the radio. Everyone is doing this digital thing and they’re putting all these pop sounds into country music, and I love it. I dance to it at the club. But I don’t do that personally. I don’t even have a computer," says Ballard, going on to lay out his plan for country music dominance.
"There is something you have to fundamentally understand about me: my dream goes the whole way. It goes all the way. So I want more people hearing my music," he says. "So what are you going to do, Frankie? Well, I guess I’m going to try to make some better music. And if it’s not better than what I did before, there’s no reason for it to come out. I don’t want to maintain altitude — I want to fly, man."
According to many music industry insiders, 2015 is shaping up to be the year for....LOCASH. As the LoCash Cowboys, the duo has enjoyed hits with songs such as “Keep In Mind” and “The Best Seat In The House,” and have written such hits as the chart-topping “You Gonna Fly” for Keith Urban and “Truck Yeah” for Tim McGraw. They have built their brand through live performances, as well – with appearances on some of the most prestigious stages in the world, and have shared stages with acts ranging from Tim McGraw to Kiss. Their music has received over ten million view on YouTube, and they are known as one of the hardest working acts in the music business today. But, the best is yet to come for the duo of Chris Lucas and Preston Brust – now simply known as LOCASH. They have just recently inked a new deal with Reviver Records - a new Nashville label that could very well be considered as the Ultimate All-Star team of music industry professionals, such as David Ross (President and CEO / Reviver Records), Butch Waugh (Strategic Advisor / Reviver), Tony Conway (Manager – Ontourage Management), Michael Powers and Matt Corbin of Star Farm Nashville. As you can imagine, there is an undeniable amount of excitement in the LOCASH world these days. “They say it takes ten years, and we’ve been out there doing it,” said the duo’s Chris Lucas. “It feels like it’s our year. This is where the stars have aligned. I feel like even though Preston and I are work horses – we go out and do in excess of a 150 shows a year, I think we can now focus more on our music, and the sound that we’ve always wanted to put out. We’ve usually been the ones calling radio. We can sit back and trust who we have on our team and in our corner to do their job, and allow us to focus on songwriting and performing.” Among the duo’s supporters include Kicker Audio, which has sponsored their “Livin’ Loud” tour, Dean Guitars, Under Armour clothing, Mossy Oak, Bowtech, Comcast, and Bud Light. They have also lent their considerable talents to The Outdoor Channel’s All Star Cast. Chris and Preston also believe in giving back to their community, by participating in such charities as D.A.R.E., St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, and the T.J. Martell Foundation. The LOCASH story so far has been quite exciting. When looking back at their career path so far, Brust said “We performed in Times Square on New Years’ Eve. That’s one of those coveted live performance slots that a lot of people never get to do – even as an icon. So, that was an energy that we had never felt before, watching the ball drop. I think having Keith Urban recording ‘You Gonna Fly,’ and giving us our first number one song really changed it all, and Tim McGraw doing ‘Truck Yeah” a few months later was huge for us as songwriters. That was his comeback single on Big Machine, and to be a part of that was a great moment for us. Playing the Grand Ole Opry was a big moment, and that’s where we got the idea for “The Best Seat In The House,’ so one thing kind of led itself to the other on that. It all becomes one big journey and one big memory that we are as excited about now as when we started out at the Wildhorse Saloon,” a reference to where the guys first united their musical talents together over a decade ago in the club’s DJ booth. But, with dynamic new music slated for the first quarter of 2015, the memories will be getting even more plentiful for LOCASH. “I know we can make this new record deal very successful,” says Lucas. We’ve done our due diligence. We’ve threw kindling all over the place, and it’s time to light it. We’ve got a lot of great fans and people who believe in us. I don’t think you can be in a better position than what we are right now. I honestly think that 2015 will be the year that the public will hear great new music from Preston and me on the radio. We have studied with the best, and “For The First Time Ever,” we are confident that our songs and live performances are at the top of their game, so get ready to experience Livin’ Loud with LOCASH.
The Oak Ridge Boys
A Piece of History
Theirs is one of the most distinctive and recognizable sounds in the music industry. The four-part harmonies and upbeat songs of The Oak Ridge Boys have spawned dozens of Country hits and a Number One Pop smash, earned them Grammy, Dove, CMA, and ACM awards and garnered a host of other industry and fan accolades. Every time they step before an audience, the Oaks bring four decades of charted singles, and 50 years of tradition, to a stage show widely acknowledged as among the most exciting anywhere. And each remains as enthusiastic about the process as they have ever been.
“When I go on stage, I get the same feeling I had the first time I sang with The Oak Ridge Boys,” says lead singer Duane Allen. “This is the only job I've ever wanted to have.”
“Like everyone else in the group,” adds bass singer extraordinaire, Richard Sterban, “I was a fan of the Oaks before I became a member. I’m still a fan of the group today. Being in The Oak Ridge Boys is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.”
The two, along with tenor Joe Bonsall and baritone William Lee Golden, comprise one of Country's truly legendary acts. Their string of hits includes the Country-Pop chart-topper Elvira, as well as Bobbie Sue, Dream On, Thank God For Kids, American Made, I Guess It Never Hurts To Hurt Sometimes, Fancy Free, Gonna Take A Lot Of River and many others. In 2009, they covered a White Stripes song, receiving accolades from Rock reviewers. In 2011, they rerecorded a thirtieth anniversary version of Elvira for a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store project.
The group has scored 12 gold, three platinum, and one double platinum album—plus one double platinum single—and had more than a dozen national Number One singles and over 30 Top Ten hits.
Gospel Music Roots
The Oaks represent a tradition that extends back to World War II. The original group, based in Knoxville, Tennessee, began performing Country and Gospel music in nearby Oak Ridge where the atomic bomb was being developed. They called themselves the Oak Ridge Quartet, and they began regular Grand Ole Opry appearances in the fall of ‘45. In the mid-fifties, they were featured in Time magazine as one of the top drawing Gospel groups in the nation.
By the late ‘60s, with more than 30 members having come and gone, they had a lineup that included Duane Allen, William Lee Golden, Noel Fox, and Willie Wynn. Among the Oaks’ many acquaintances in the Gospel field were Bonsall, a streetwise Philadelphia kid who embraced Gospel music; and Sterban, who was singing in quartets and holding down a job as a men’s clothing salesman. Both admired the distinctive, highly popular Oaks.
“They were the most innovative quartet in Gospel music,” says Bonsall. “They performed Gospel with a Rock approach, had a full band, wore bell-bottom pants and grew their hair long...things unheard of at the time.”
The four became friends, and when the Oaks needed a bass and tenor in ‘72 and ’73, respectively, Sterban and Bonsall got the calls. For a while, the group remained at the pinnacle of the Gospel music circuit. It was there they refined the strengths that would soon make them an across-the-board attraction.
“We did a lot of package shows,” says Bonsall. “There was an incredible amount of competition. You had to blow people away to sell records and get invited back.”
Their Gospel sound had a distinct Pop edge to it and, although it made for excitement and crowd appeal, it also ruffled purist feathers and left promoters unsure about the Oaks’ direction. Then in 1975, the Oaks were asked to open a number of dates for Roy Clark. Clark’s manager, Jim Halsey, was impressed by their abilities.
“He came backstage and told us we were three-and-a-half minutes (meaning one hit record) away from being a major act,” says Bonsall. “He said we had one of the most dynamic stage shows he’d ever seen but that we had to start singing Country songs.”
They took his advice and the result was a breakthrough.
“Those who came to Country music with or after the New Traditionalists of the mid-eighties cannot possibly imagine the impact the Oaks had in 1977, when they lit up the sky from horizon to horizon with Y’All Come Back Saloon,” wrote Billboard’s Ed Morris. He added, “...the vocal intensity the group brought to it instantly enriched and enlivened the perilously staid Country format. These guys were exciting.”
The Oaks branch out
Their career has spanned not only decades, but also formats. In 1977, Paul Simon tapped the Oaks to sing backup for his hit Slip Slidin’ Away, and they went on to record with George Jones, Brenda Lee, Johnny Cash, Roy Rogers, Billy Ray Cyrus, Bill Monroe, Ray Charles and even Shooter Jennings, the son of their old friend Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter. Most recently, the group recorded a duet with Merle Haggard for their 2015 Rock of Ages hymns and Gospel favorites album.
They produced one of the first Country music videos. In 1977, Easy, although not released in the U.S., reached the Number Three slot in Australia. They participated in the first American popular music headline tour in the USSR.
The Oak Ridge Boys have appeared before five presidents. And they have become one of the most enduringly successful touring groups anywhere, still performing some 150 dates each year at major theaters, fairs, and festivals across the U.S. and Canada.
They did it with a consistently upbeat musical approach and terrific business savvy.
“We always look for songs that have lasting value and that are uplifting,” says Allen, who co-produced many of the Oaks’ recent studio albums. “You don’t hear us singing ‘cheating’ or ‘drinking’ songs, but ‘loving’ songs, because we think that will last. We also don‘t put music in categories, except for ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ When we get through with it, it’s probably going to sound like an Oak Ridge Boys song no matter what it is.”
They proved their business acumen in any number of ways, including such steps as declining the chance to sit on the couch during their many appearances on the Tonight Show.
“We said, ‘If you‘re going to give us four minutes on the couch with Johnny, we’d rather have four minutes to give you another song that lets people know what got us here,’” says Allen. “We didn’t get here talking; we got here singing.”
They also proved themselves to be capable and tireless advocates of charitable and civic causes, serving as spokesmen and/or board members of fundraisers for the Boy Scouts of America, the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse (now, Prevent Child Abuse America), Feed The Children, the National Anthem Project and many more.
The group’s first personnel change in many years occurred in 1987 when Steve Sanders, who had been playing guitar in the Oaks Band, replaced William Lee as the baritone singer. Late in ‘95, Steve resigned from the Oaks and exactly one minute after midnight on New Year’s Eve, Duane, Joe and Richard surprised a packed house at the Holiday Star Theatre in Merrillville, Indiana, by welcoming William Lee on stage and back into the group. The hit makers were finally together again!
The Oaks’ high-energy stage show remains the heart and soul of what they do, and they refine it several times a year, striving to keep it fresh well into the future.
“We‘re not willing to rest on our laurels,” Golden says. “That gets boring. As a group, we do things constantly to challenge ourselves, to try to do something different or better than the last time we did it.”
“I feel like I can do what I do on stage just as good now as I could 20 years ago,” says Bonsall. “I plan to be rockin’ my tail off out there as long as I’m healthy. The people who come out, who bring their families to see us, deserve everything I’ve got.”
“We’ve experienced a lot of longevity,” adds Sterban. “I think the reason is the love we have for what we do—the desire, the longing to actually get up there and do it. We love to sing together...to harmonize together. It’s what our lives are all about.”
“Back” to the future
In 2009, the group recorded a CD, The Boys Are Back, with 34-year-old, Pop-Rock producer Dave Cobb. Cobb encouraged them to stretch musically.
“Seven Nation Army was Dave’s first idea out of the shoot. He said he envisioned us singing where The White Stripes and Jack White do the instrumental parts. It turned out incredibly well,” Bonsall says. “The project is diverse and includes an old spiritual from the Smithsonian archives, God’s Gonna Ease Your Troublin’ Mind, as well as a new Jamey Johnson-penned, soon-to-be-classic called Mama’s Table.”
The Oaks’ new music attracted the attention of a younger audience, while reminding dedicated fans that their favorite group is ever-evolving. “When we throw those songs at the audience, it's fun to watch their reaction. The cool thing is they're loving it.” Bonsall says. “We don't give it any introduction; we just go straight into each song. We did Seven Nation Army in Minnesota a few weeks ago and got a standing ovation. The younger kids in the audience were freaking out.”
Duane Allen, who is Executive Producer for the project, adds, “We went to California to get a Rock and Roll producer who brought us back home to the very roots of our music, which is Gospel mixed with Country, Blues, and Rock and Roll.”
Golden describes the new project as a “musical journey.”
Sterban agrees. “I think David took us down some roads we might not have traveled on our own. The music may be different but he did not try to change us, he challenged us.”
Many have labeled the Oaks’ path as one similar to what Johnny Cash traveled with producer Rick Rubin. The Oak Ridge Boys find that analogy appropriate, almost sentimental, because Cash was one of their earliest supporters and a longtime friend.
“Back when we were struggling in the early 1970’s, Johnny Cash encouraged us. He booked us on his show in Las Vegas, and he paid us too much money. But his belief in us was the most important thing. He sat us down and told us, ‘Boys, you think it’s rough right now, but there’s magic in the four of you. I can feel that magic. I know there is magic there. Don’t break up.’”
And the rest is history.
It’s Only Natural
In 2011, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store asked The Oak Ridge Boys to record an album with a blend of previously recorded and brand new songs. The result was It’s Only Natural, a twelve-track CD with seven rerecorded hits, including the group’s multi-platinum, Country-Pop hit Elvira, and five new songs.
Veteran Oaks’ producer Ron Chancey returned to the studio with the group to produce Elvira and two new songs, and the team of Duane Allen and Michael Sykes reunited to produce the remaining nine. The album debuted on September 19, a month after the Oaks were inducted into the Grand Ole Opry.
While the combination of Oak Ridge Boys and Cracker Barrel is “only natural,” the Oaks stretched—yet again—and invited YouTube sensation Keenan Cahill to join them on what would become a viral music video for their first single from the project. What’cha Gonna Do? was released to country radio in November 2011 and received widespread acceptance on national grass roots and Music Row charts.
In early 2014—forty-one years after Duane, Joe, Richard, and William Lee first stepped onstage together as a group—they celebrated 41 million, RIAA-certified records sold by signing a new record deal with Los Angeles-based Cleopatra Records. Their first release from Cleopatra, Boys Night Out, is a 14-song live project, which was released April 15, 2014. It’s the first live country hits recording ever to be released by The Oak Ridge Boys as they continue to make history.
Terri ClarkHailing from Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada, Terri got her start playing for tips at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a honky-tonk bar across the alley from Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium. She signed with Mercury Records and emerged as a distinctive voice on the country music landscape – driving, passionate, spirited – and every bit her own woman. Read More The 8-time CCMA Entertainer of the Year has also taken home the CCMA Female Vocalist of the Year award five times. She has made her mark on radio with more than twenty singles, including six Number Ones in Canada and the USA – hits such as such as “Better Things To Do,” “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” “Girls Lie Too,” and “I Just Wanna Be Mad.” Terri has sold over five million albums and achieved Gold, Platinum, Double Platinum, and Triple Platinum status as certified by the CRIA and RIAA. She also has the honor of being the only Canadian female artist to be a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Terri is a dynamic, no-holds-barred live performer and one of the rare female country artists capable of throwing down some impressive guitar work. Terri has toured with such superstars as Brad Paisley, Toby Keith, Brooks & Dunn, Reba McEntire, and George Strait. In addition, she continues to headline sold-out tours throughout Canada. Recently Terri ventured into an exciting new chapter of her career as radio co-host of “America’s Morning Show” with Blair Garner. They can currently be heard across the country on Cumulus Radio NASH-FM stations. She is well on her way to establishing her position as an all-around entertainer in the country music industry.
The snarl in his voice sets the tone for Jon Pardi’s California Sunrise. He’s a traditional country singer, bred in the West Coast honky tonks, and he won’t apologize for chasing the dream on his own terms.
It might be considered contemporary cool to inject country songs with programmed drums, rap phrasing and poppy melodies. But Pardi isn’t worried about what’s trendy. He’s more concerned with making country music that will last, and California Sunrise successfully hits that target. It’s stocked with classic Nashville melody, blue-collar lyrical themes and authentic country instrumentation – real drums, loud-and-proud fiddles and tangy steel guitar. The album’s 12 songs draw a direct link to such forbearers as Dwight Yoakam, George Strait and Marty Stuart, and it’s intentional.
“There’s a growing audience for throwback,” Pardi says. “People want to hear somebody who really enjoyed the ‘90s country music era and brings that to 2016 country. A lot of this record is bringing an old-school flare back to a mainstream sound, but that gives me my own lane.”
Pardi established that lane with his 2014 debut, Write You a Song, a rough-and-rowdy project that made him familiar to the suddenly-hip country crowd, thanks to his Top 10 party song “Up All Night.” The music oozed with youthful brashness and longneck longing, and Pardi drew a raucous following, increasingly selling out 1,000-2,000 ticket clubs, sometimes out-performing higher-profile country acts playing across town the same night.
In fact, as Pardi began adding material from the new album into the set, he was shocked at the passion with which the music was consumed. As he played unreleased songs from California Sunrise, he discovered fans were already singing back the music verbatim – even the verses – having learned the songs from YouTube postings of earlier concerts. They’re ready for Jon Pardi, and he knows exactly what they need.
“I've been hitting the road steady for four years,” he says. “I’ve learned more about what the radio stations want, and I’ve learned what the fans want. It’s a whole different perspective on your second record, and I kind of took that perspective and put it into the 30-year-old me that loves recording music and loves writing.”
The result is a creative step forward. It’s not a left turn, necessarily, but there’s a clearer focus to
Pardi’s vocal performances and a smart brew of sexy romance, western fashion and all-American work ethic that permeates California Sunrise. “Head Over Boots,” his ultra-melodic two-steppin’ radio hit, hints at the attitude with its playful proclamations and Texas dancehall influence. But there’s plenty more throughout the project: ragged barroom rhythms in the opening “Out Of Style,” Strait-like overtones on the ballad “She Ain’t In It,” a Motown cowboy romp in “Heartache On The Dance Floor” and a breezy, Eagle-esque country/rock closure with the title track. As invested as he is in throwback appreciation, Pardi is clearly not a one-dimensional dude.
“It’s a very diverse album,” he notes. “You can listen to ‘She Ain’t In It’ and you can listen to another song, and they sound like they should be put together in an album, but they’re completely different.”
The unifying thread, of course, is Pardi’s artistry, a blend of that crackling, masculine voice with irresistible musical taste and a working-man spirit that’s at the heart of his being. Pardi is a native of the Golden State, but he’s no Hollywood Hills golden child. He’s a middle-class son of a Northern California construction boss, a kid who – like most kids – tried to figure out the shortcuts, only to learn from the old man the value of putting in the time to finish the job the right way.
“My dad was a super-hard worker,” Pardi explains. “Now as a grown man I really appreciate that. The area I'm from is really blue-collar, agricultural, everybody’s working, everybody’s doing something in construction, something in farming. Everybody’s just working hard. When I go back, there’s that pride there that’s like this made me who I am.”
The work started at age 14. He did a short stint at a grocery store before progressing to grunt work at a Ford dealership, to ranch work and, later, to operating heavy machinery.
“Not everybody knows how to swing a framing hammer,” he says. “I’ve had to teach a friend how to swing a hammer. It’s really all about living and learning.”
Pardi wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, but he mostly wanted to wrap them around a guitar. He started writing songs by the age of 12 and was in his first band at 14. By 19, he knew Nashville was in his future. Once he arrived in Music City, there was more conventional work to keep him going – he was a lifeguard at a public pool for a time – but he found his way into Nashville’s songwriting community, where he applied some of the same skills he’d learned at his father’s dusty feet.
“Surround yourself with great people is a great thing to have in your mind for life,” he says. “Find the best people to work with. You can learn a lot.”
Among the key people he learned from is songwriter Brice Long, who co-wrote such trad-country pieces as Randy Houser’s ballad “Anything Goes” and Gary Allan’s #1 single “Nothing On But The Radio.”
“Brice is always saying, ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing, don’t worry about everyone else,’” Pardi notes. “You need those kind of guys that have hits on the radio telling you that.”
Pardi became particularly close with songwriter Bart Butler, whose successes include Thomas Rhett’s “Make Me Wanna” and Bobby Pinson’s “Don’t Ask Me How I Know.” Butler not only became a frequent co-writer, he also emerged as Pardi’s co-producer, someone who’s able to handle the detail parts of the gig but also to assist Pardi in expressing his own creative voice.
“We’ve stayed true to Jon’s soul, even though we knew that may be a risk,” Butler says. “We still feel like country music with twin fiddles or musicians doing a steel solo can compete in the market today.”
Indeed, “Head Over Boots” – the first single from California Sunrise – became Pardi’s fastest-rising single to date, thanks to its buoyant melody and incessant optimism. Pulling from that same upbeat viewpoint, Sunrise makes multiple allusions to fashion through such titles as “Head Over Boots,” the bouncy “Dirt On My Boots” and the suggestive “Cowboy Hat.” The latter finds a young buck in a countrified take on the Tom Jones/Joe Cocker title “Leave Your Hat On,” keyed by the memorable line “Can’t resist you in that Resistol.” There’s a workman-like ethic embedded in the sweaty “Night Shift” and the pounding “Paycheck.” And there’s an innate sexiness throughout.
Pardi delivers it all with increasing authority. He introduced that confidence in Write You a Song, but he takes it another step on California, owing to the additional experience he picked up in the interim as an opening act at arenas and amphitheaters for Dierks Bentley and Alan Jackson.
“A vocal cord is like a muscle – if you work it out, it’s gonna get better,” Pardi suggests. “It’s like going to the gym and doing push ups and sit ups, and now it’s just my voice kind of growing up.”
As is his artistry. Pardi wrote a bulk of the songs on California Sunrise, but he was more than willing to consider material from other Nashville songwriters. He discovered a bevy of tunes that had been overlooked in the rush for synthetic productions from some of his contemporaries. He used mostly the same band that backed him on the first album, and they were invested in both the music and Pardi.
“It was like the Blues Brothers – ‘We’re getting the band back together!’” Pardi says with a laugh. “We got all seven of them in the room, and there was just a spark.”
The whole ensemble was able to hone in on the core of Jon Pardi, that California, working-class kid who still finds inspiration in the unfettered sound of a dancehall guitar. It’s snarling, hard country for a new generation, a throwback sound to an energized audience that sees it as moving forward.
Ushered into the world on the same label that launched Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, Pardi has found a whole chain of believers in his mission: the dedicated band behind him, the foot-stomping fans with cold beers at the foot of the stage, and a label that knows Pardi’s “throwback” sound is really made for these times.
“Everybody wants to play at an arena and headline it, and I'm not gonna lie – that’s one of my goals,” Pardi says. “Capitol is always the first to remind me that it’s a marathon and not a sprint.”
Those people who already know the words to his songs even before they’re released are evidence that he’s not just running the race. Jon Pardi is winning.
Randy Rogers Band
Authenticity isn’t something that can be manufactured in a studio. It’s not a craft that can be learned or artfully practiced. It comes from living life. It’s the byproduct of blood, sweat and tears and as the foundation for music, it elevates mere entertainment to compelling art. Every note, every word on the Randy Rogers Band’s new album Nothing Shines Like Neon rings with authenticity that makes each song linger with the listener long after the music fades.
“You’ve just got to be true to yourself and you can’t fool anybody,” Rogers states matter of factly of the band’s philosophy. “As a whole, our body of work is pretty consistent to our live show and the band that plays on the record is the band that you go see.”
The same line up has been performing together since 2002 and the music has evolved as they’ve soaked up life experience. “As men we’ve all matured and lived a lot of life together,” Rogers says. “We’ve had a few breakups happen to us. We’ve had babies. We’ve had life changes. We’ve been on the road 200 shows a year. I’ve been in this band 15 years so a lot has changed. I still listen to Merle Haggard every night. I mean that hasn’t changed, but a lot has changed for us musically and privately. We all are in a good spot and we all are just as good friends as when we started.”
Camaraderie and creativity have made Rogers and bandmates Geoffrey Hill (guitar), Johnny “Chops” Richardson (bass guitar), Brady Black (fiddle), Les Lawless (drums) and Todd Stewart (utility player) one of the top bands on the competitive Texas music scene. Nothing Shines Like Neon continues the momentum established by the band’s four previous albums—Randy Rogers Band, Burning the Day, Trouble and Homemade Tamales, each of which went to No. 1 on iTunes. Earlier in 2015, Rogers joined friend Wade Bowen to record the critically acclaimed album Hold My Beer Vol. 1.
Produced by Nashville legend Buddy Cannon (Willie/Merle) at Cedar Creek in Austin, RRB’s news album Nothing Shines Like Neon showcases the band’s taut musicianship as well as Rogers’ earnest vocals and insightful songwriting on such instant classics as the groove laden “Rain and the Radio,” the heartbreak anthem “Neon Blues” and the playful “Actin’ Crazy,” a duet with Jamey Johnson. “Jamey and I wrote that song together,” Rogers notes. “I met a movie star a few days before Jamey and I were going to write. I was in LA playing at the House of Blues and he came out to the show. I was thinking about him …and thinking about being a struggling actor living in LA and having to put up with all the bullshit that LA is. I just wrote that song about him.”
The album opens with the fiddle driven shuffle “San Antone”. “That is a Keith Gattis song. He wrote by himself. Being from Texas and living so close to San Antonio, I don’t think that song is going to hurt me at all,” Rogers laughs. “It’s one of those songs when I heard it I was like, ‘Oh hell! Why didn’t I write this song?’”
“Takin’ It As It Comes” features Lone Star legend Jerry Jeff Walker. “I’ve been a big fan of Jerry Jeff’s all my life,” Rogers says. “He came in the studio with us, got in there with the band, jumped around and played guitar and sang. We had a great time.”
“Rain and the Radio” is Rogers’ homage to Ronnie Milsap. “I wrote that with Sean McConnell. He and I have written a lot of songs through the years. I’ve always been a huge Ronnie Milsap fan and to me that song has a little Milsap feel to it, kind of a bluesy country thing, which we haven’t done before. Any artist that I look up to always tries to create something different and pushes the envelope a little bit. I think we do with that song in particular. It’s very country. It’s just very different. As a band, we’re trying to broaden our horizons and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. If we were all just stuck doing the same old thing, we would all be bored. We probably wouldn’t still be here. It’s just a matter of spreading your wings a little bit.”
“Look Out Yonder” is a poignant tune Rogers recorded in honor of his mentor, the late Kent Finlay. “Kent gave me my start in the music business. Up until the day that he died, we talked about songs and about music,” Rogers says. “We actually named the record, Nothing Shines Like Neon after a lyric in one of his songs as a tribute to him. Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski are singing on ‘Look Out Yonder’, which was written by Earl Bud Lee, who is most famous for writing ‘Friends In Low Places’. He and I have been friends for 10 years and he has always wanted me to cut that song. I’ve never had a record where it fit and just thinking about losing Kent and Kent going to heaven and joining his mom, ‘Look out yonder coming down the road’ it just fit. I haven’t performed that song yet live, but I know I’m going to have a hard time getting through it. The day we started our record, I got a call that Kent passed away so this record is definitely dedicated to Kent. That song makes me think about all of us musicians and how we are crazy as hell and lead the most unorthodox lives. Most of us return back to our roots, so hopefully this is an album that glorifies Kent’s life and is also a nod to the traditional sounds that we all grew up loving.”
A native of Cleburne, Texas, Rogers grew up addicted to traditional country music. “I wanted to be George Strait when I was in the sixth grade,” he says with a smile. “And I grew up listening to Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, I’ve listened to them more than anybody else, my whole life. I always liked songs. I always wanted to find out who wrote the songs and what the songs were about. I always liked the art and the craft of being a songwriter. My dad’s Beatles records got played a lot and Michael Martin Murphy is another one I listened to a lot as a kid. My dad was a huge fan.”
Like many artists, Rogers got his start performing in church and then expanded to local venues. “I could write a song when I was pretty little, 11, 12 or 13,” he says. “It’s like a kid who could do calculus or something. It was just something that clicked in my brain for me. I went and finished college and got a degree in public relations and then started a band.”
Since then the Randy Rogers Band has steadily built a following that has spilled beyond their native Texas. For the past 10 years they’ve recorded for Universal Music Group, but on Nothing Shines Like Neon, Rogers again takes the reins, releasing the album on his own Tommy Jackson Records, named after a song he wrote for their very first album. “It’s a very obscure Randy Rogers Band song and to this day there is always this one drunk kid at a show that says, ‘Play “Tommy Jackson!” Play “Tommy Jackson!”’ It’s kind of a running joke within our band. It’s like, ‘How in the hell did this kid in Iowa City, Iowa remember that stupid song “Tommy Jackson?”’ It’s about a guy who is on the run from the cops, wanted for murder. It’s a story song and we just felt like it was a unique way to name a record label.”
Nothing Shines Like Neon is a stellar collection in an already impressive body of recorded material that owes a lot to the band’s potent live show. “You come to a show, you know what you’re going to get,” Rogers says. “We’ve worked hard at making ourselves better on stage and we care about our live show. It’s a way to come out and unwind, and we’ve stuck to writing songs that are about real life, about breakups or divorces, falling in love or babies being born, and in the case of this record even death, the ups and downs of life. People can relate. That’s what country music is supposed to be. Our band has been around for a long time because there’s no bullshit to us. We’re not in it to be rich and famous. We’re in it to make a living, provide for our families and do something that we all love. You can’t fool people and we haven’t ever tried. I think that’s the key.”
High Valley's major label debut single "Make You Mine" (Atlantic / Warner Music Nashville) is an
exercise in balance and purity of expression. By combining their bluegrass roots with a modern
pulse, brothers Brad and Curtis Rempel have created something that feels simultaneously fresh
Beginning with a burst of turbocharged acoustic guitar, the tune builds momentum with a fouron-
the-floor kick drum and rousing group choruses that beg to be shouted at full-volume. This
energetic attack is mirrored by the determination and confidence in the lyrics, aimed at winning
over a "soul miner's daughter." Also remarkable is how "Make You Mine" refuses to be
overwhelmed by electric instrumentation, staying close to its acoustic core. That was a very
conscious decision, according to mandolin player/harmony vocalist Curtis.
"Even getting some buddies in the studio and just shouting out lyrics, bringing energy in that
way instead of always defaulting to crunchy guitars and things like that," says Curtis. "That's
what we're all about."
Earlier this year, Brad and Curtis played the song at the Grand Ole Opry and were fortunate to
be accompanied in the hallowed circle by one of their biggest influences, Ricky Skaggs. Though
Skaggs' early '80s heyday pre-dates either brother, they've been longtime fans since
discovering him on the lone AM radio station they could receive growing up. While their
upbringing in a close-knit remote community didn't exactly acquaint them with all of popular
music, it did help cement the musical ideals and love of simple, classic country that still inform
the duo to this day.
High Valley is currently working on their new album due in 2016.
"I'd rather be an old fencepost in Texas than the king of Tennessee," Aaron Watson sings on "Fencepost," echoing the words of one of his favorite fellow Texans, Sam Houston. It's a song about a rising Texas country songwriter who gets the door slammed in his face by big-time Nashville record executives who underestimate him. Instead of giving up on his dreams, though, he rolls up his sleeves, proves them all wrong through sheer determination, and soon finds them knocking on his own door. If it sounds familiar, that's because, as Watson sings, it's "a true story," and the reason he's titled his 12th record 'The Underdog.'
"I've always liked the idea of the underdog," says Watson. "I've always liked the idea that the guy who's not supposed to win could still beat all the odds through hard work and perseverance. A lot of people are always telling us that what we're achieving in the music business is just next to impossible. I don't really consider it that way. We're just out there working hard."
Working hard is a serious understatement for Watson, who performs hundreds of shows every year, has collaborated with special guests like Willie Nelson, Dale Watson, Jack Ingram, and Bill Joe Shaver, cracked the Top 10 on the Billboard 200, and sold hundreds of thousands of tickets, all as a totally independent artist with his own label. The lead single from 'The Underdog, "That Look," which Watson wrote for his wife Kimberly, turned heads by debuting in the Top 10 of the Billboard Country Digital Songs Chart and closing out the year as one of the most successful-selling independent singles of 2014.
"If your dreams aren’t handed to you on a sliver platter, that’s ok," says Watson. "You go out there and you chase them. You may have to work hard for them, but don't let anyone discourage you."
'The Underdog,' then, is more than just an album title for Watson. It's a mission statement.
"The idea of the underdog really describes where I'm at right now in my career and what we're trying to achieve with this record," he explains. "I'm not one of these guys that can put on a pair of skinny jeans or turn my hat around backwards and sing those pop country radio songs. Nothing against the guys who do that because it's their thing and true to who they are, but if I played that role, it wouldn't be me. When I'm singing these songs hundreds of times a year, they need to be things I personally believe in.”
For Watson, there are three things he believes in above all else: family, faith, and fans.
"There is no Aaron Watson without those three things," he says. "My faith is what guides me. It keeps me focused on my music. God has blessed me with an amazing wife and beautiful kids, and at the end of the day, success to me is working hard and making a living for my family. That's all any dad wants. My fans like the fact that I'm really a normal guy," he continues. "If I can't get on stage and talk to my fans about my faith and my family, I've got nothing."
It's little surprise, then, that the album opens with "The Prayer," a song inspired by a copy of Johnny Cash's book 'The Man In White,' which Watson found in the Faith section of a used bookstore on tour.
"I started reading this book on the bus, and before you get started with the story, Johnny just talks about his struggles with different addictions and how his faith saved his life," says Watson. "He talks about how he tried to kill himself and that was the turning point where he knew Jesus wasn’t through with his life. When we think of Johnny Cash, he's The Man in Black, he stands tall, and he's a very intimidating figure. He was 'Folsom Prison Blues,' 'Ring of Fire' Johnny Cash! And he was going into a cave to kill himself! I tried to put myself in that cave with this song."
Rather than dwell on the darkness of that moment though, "The Prayer" is a song about finding the light and letting it shine through. The same goes for "Bluebonnets," a song written in memory of Watson's late daughter Julia Grace, who passed away shortly after birth of Trisomy 18 and was laid to rest on a beautiful hillside overlooking where the Texas state flower blossoms for a brief, gorgeous window every spring.
"Like bluebonnets in the spring we're only here for a little while," he sings. "It's beautiful and bittersweet so make the most of every mile."
Like the great country songwriters who inspired him—Hank, Waylon, Willie—Watson has a lighter side, too. "Blame It On Those Baby Blues" is a sweet love song, "Freight Train" is a rollicking road anthem, and "One Of Your Nights" is what Watson describes as one of his "lovemaking songs." Meanwhile, "That's Why God Loves Cowboys" and "That's Gonna Leave A Mark" are pure country through and through.
The disparate sounds and feelings on the record are all masterfully tied together through the production work of Keith Stegall (Alan Jackson, George Jones, Zac Brown Band).
"I needed someone who was going to push me to better myself melodically and lyrically," says Watson. "Keith understood all that and he really dove in and found a way to get the best out of me. I was able to get right in there with this legendary producer and work alongside him and soak up every moment, and I'm forever grateful."
Working with such an acclaimed producer as a completely independent artist was a real coup for Watson, and just one more reason he painted his face up like a rodeo clown on the album cover.
"The rodeo clown is a huge underdog," explains Watson, who sings from the perspective of one on "Rodeo Queen." "He's up against a huge bull trying to protect these riders, putting his life on the line. Talk about an unsung hero."
It's an appropriate metaphor for a man who's defied the odds and conventional wisdom, chasing down his dream through hard work and determination even when the door was slammed in his face. "When you fear when you fail when you feel you're gonna fall," he sings on the title track, "follow your heart and always believe in the underdog."
Who is LANco? LANco is the people you know and the life you live, reimagined. LANco is the familiar, couched in the extraordinary. LANco is a connection to community built by the bonds of music. They are five best friends making music and working to create something bigger while grinding it out on the road to build an identity. Through this, they became Lancaster & Company, now known as LANco. Everyone touched by their music becomes part of the Company. The band is nothing without the Company. The musical mission statement: every day in every way, throw one hell of a Company party.
Together, LANco is Brandon Lancaster (lead vocals), Chandler Baldwin (bass), Jared Hampton (keyboards, banjo), Tripp Howell (drums), and Eric Steedly (lead guitar).
Formed in 2012, LANco was born of a chance meeting between Howell and Nashville native Lancaster – each performing in bands at the same festival – just as Howell was readying a move to Music City the same week that Lancaster was returning from college. Once in Nashville, Lancaster met Steedly through mutual friends, while Hampton and Baldwin followed shortly thereafter, with the young band gigging at every opportunity.
Mining a catalog of songs written by Lancaster, the group began to develop its sound. Making the most of Howell’s day job in a carpet warehouse, the guys would slip in at night to rehearse on the little-traveled second level, loading their gear up and down with a forklift until they realized they could safely hide it with carpet between rehearsals.
But it was Lancaster’s side job – working a concession stand at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena – that opened a big door for the band when he spotted producer Jay Joyce at a concert in 2014. A fan of Joyce’s work as producer of such acts as Little Big Town and Eric Church, Lancaster recalls with a smile, “I closed down my hot dog stand and walked up to Jay and just introduced myself.”
The conversation brought an invitation from Joyce for Lancaster to share some songs that he’d written, and shortly thereafter, for a band audition.
“One week we’re playing in a carpet warehouse, and a few weeks later, we’re playing live in Jay Joyce’s studio,” marvels Lancaster, “and he’s like, ‘Okay, we’ve gotta make a record; let’s do this.’”
The first result of their collaboration is LANco’s four-song self-titled EP. Featured tracks include the lead single, “Long Live Tonight,” as well as “We Do,” “American Love Story” and “Trouble Maker.” The EP offers first-time LANco listeners a taste of the distinctive style that defines the band’s music, from production to songwriting. Download the LANco EP here and stream it on Spotify here.
“It’s country music in a way that hasn’t been done before,” Lancaster observes. “No other band that’s out right now has the production and the dynamics of the music that I think that we have in ours.”
Carrying forward one of the core traditions of great country music, Lancaster adds that you’ll find “aspects of classic country songwriting within the music; we have stories being told.” But even in its storytelling, LANco is carving a lyrical niche, with writing designed to offer “unique perspectives of very universal situations.”
Now looking forward to the release of their upcoming full-length debut album – also produced by Joyce – LANco is among the first acts signed to Sony Music Nashville since the arrival of new Chairman & CEO Randy Goodman. Assigned to the label group’s Arista Nashville imprint (home to Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, and more), the band was an immediate win with Goodman, who offered them a deal on the spot the first time he heard them live.
Indeed, the band’s live performance energy is becoming one of their undeniable calling cards – and a big part of that is being able to engage the audience.
“I want people to not just hear the music, but be a part of the music. All the songs that we’re playing and singing, they’re really talking about people’s lives, and they’re talking about situations that every person’s familiar with, and we’re doing it with a lot of energy and a lot of crowd participation. I always go out in the crowd and sing, and we’re very interactive.
“We are LANco, and so are you.”
Country newcomer Ryan Hurd has had hit songs coming through radio speakers across America since he signed with Universal Music Publishing as a songwriter three years ago. Hurd has written songs that have been recorded by Blake Shelton, Tim McGraw, Jake Owen, Rascal Flatts, Randy Houser, Darius Rucker, The Cadillac Three, Brothers Osborne and the Swon Brothers. Hurd celebrated his first No. 1 single as a songwriter in 2015 with the GRAMMY & CMA-nominated duet “Lonely Tonight,” recorded by Blake Shelton and Ashley Monroe. Now, the Kalamazoo, MI native is lending his own voice to the songs he writes and taking them on the road. “Songwriting will always be a huge part of who I am,” says Hurd. “I am excited to follow the full life of the songs I’ve written. I’m ready to perform and connect with people out on the road and grow as an artist.” Ryan and his childhood friend, writer and producer Aaron Eshuis, went into the studio to record five-song EP, Panorama, which was released promotionally to a sold out crowd of over 500 at Nashville’s Basement East in August of 2015 and is now available via streaming. “Aaron and I have been writing songs and playing music together since we were 14 years old in Kalamazoo,” reflects Hurd. “So, Panorama feels like we’ve come full circle. It’s amazing to start down this new part of my artistic journey with so many supportive and creative people.”
“We work all week, in a smokestack town. ‘Til the freakin’ weekend comes rolling around!” Brandon Ray belts out intermixed with infectious handclaps on the chorus of this new track “American Way,” a song that encapsulates the best elements of country and good ole rock n’ roll.
The West-Texas native knows a thing or two about the American Way. At a young age his parents instilled the notion to follow his passion while emphasizing the importance of hard work. “In the early days I used to barricade myself in my room for hours and emerge with a horrible excuse for a song and annoy my parents with it. They did nothing but encourage me to keep going. In a way, they were my first publishers,” Ray laughs.
Music was ever-present in his childhood home. His father had a deep love for legendary rockers like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Steely Dan, while his two brothers introduced him to the musical greats Metallica, Mellencamp and Nirvana. Ray’s mother kept a prominent force of country music throughout the household with the help of icons such as George Strait and Johnny Cash. Despite the house filled with music, his first love was baseball and he dreamed of pitching for the Texas Rangers, but was benched after two foot surgeries that ultimately shifted his focus to playing guitar and songwriting.
By age 13, Ray had saved enough money to buy his first guitar and hasn’t looked back since. Everything from that point on has been a means to an end in an effort to achieve his American Dream. He’s held every job imaginable; lawn care, delivery boy, waiter, construction worker, guitar teacher and even lifeguard - where he once resuscitated a boy who nearly drowned at the city pool. Brandon still gets Christmas cards from the boy’s family. At 18 he was out on the road with his first band and played 750 shows in 3 years including supporting the likes of Fall Out Boy, Switchfoot and grueling summers on Vans Warped Tour.
After arriving in Nashville, Brandon landed a publishing deal with Sony/ATV, representation at CAA, toured playing guitar for Brett Eldredge and has lent vocals to numerous demos for various publishers and songwriters…all while developing his own sound.
His new batch of songs are smothered in the American richness that Brandon has soaked up crisscrossing the heartland. One part country, one part rock n’ roll, but all heart, the new songs sew together his wide variety of influences, like a patchwork quilt. On the track “That Could Be Us,” the romantic idealist approaches love with the same hopefulness he applies to his career. Ray paints a vivid picture of potential love when he sings, “That song on the radio, in your head like a movie. You can see it when you close your eyes, that moment when a boy meets girl. Their world ain’t never gonna be the same.”
It’s been a long road from Big Spring to selling t-shirts & CDs for gas to opening for Taylor Swift. But it won’t be long before that road is sound tracked by Brandon Ray’s explosive choruses blaring on country radio as he rolls on.
A boy can dream.
There’s a sound that hasn’t been heard on country radio in quite some time – the sound of organic, three-part female harmonies, ringing strings and stories that speak the language of modern women everywhere. It’s a sound that was the backbone of a little group known as The Dixie Chicks, and now it’s making a comeback through a vocal trio called Runaway June.
Rootsy, brightly colored and mixing bluegrass tradition with dusty desert cool, Runaway June is comprised of three very different women who fuse their own influences to create a style country fans have been craving.
Lead singer and guitarist Naomi Cooke grew up in Florida enchanted with the other-worldly vocals of Alison Krauss, then made her way to a stage in Nashville’s world-famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.
Singer and mandolin picker Hannah Mulholland was raised in Malibu, Calif., a nature-loving hippie chick who latched on to the liberating messages of Sheryl Crow and began writing her own music at 6 years old.
And singer/guitarist Jennifer Wayne – another California native – is a Garth Brooks lover so dedicated to country music she gave up a pro tennis career to write songs in Nashville (like Eric Paslay’s “She Don’t Love You”), and happens to be the granddaughter of Hollywood legend John Wayne.
Each of these talented young ladies were unsurprisingly Dixie Chicks fans, and each could have been a solo artist in her own right. But after forming a friendship and discovering their shared love for acoustic soul, soaring vocals and do-it-yourself positivity, Runaway June was born – a name that nods to their common bonds. Both Jennifer’s grandmother and one of Naomi’s sisters are named June, and Hannah completed a life-changing 25-day, 220-mile hike in the month of June. Plus, they all felt pulled to “run away” from their homes and toward their dreams.
Part of the Wheelhouse Records imprint of BBR Music Group, the first thing listeners will notice is the trio’s obvious musical connection, and their stunning three-part harmonies – natural and effortless in feel.
“I grew up in choirs singing low harmony, Jen naturally sings high harmony and Naomi has this perfect mid-range voice,” Hannah explains, surrounded by her bandmates in a Music Row conference room. “If we all switched positions, it wouldn’t be the same.”
Just as impressive is their musicianship, a modern twist on a way-back sound that sets Runaway June apart from the pack as a true, self-contained band.
“We’ve always had a Western feel to the music in some way, and kind of a cowboy feel,” Jennifer says. “But not rhinestone-y -- rough and leather-y.”
“Our brand of music is tied to country’s roots in that it’s all real instruments and real sounds,” Hannah adds. “But I feel like we have a modern take on it lyrically.”
Indeed, as strong women who are not afraid to take risks in achieving their goals, empowerment is a recurring theme for Runaway June – and not just female empowerment.
“We want to be including,” says Naomi. “We want to sing to everybody, so we steer away from being super negative to either gender.”
“We don’t do man-bashing songs,” Jennifer clarifies with a laugh.
In a time when female voices have been squeezed into a few narrow categories at country radio – the bad girls, the good girls, the crusaders – Runaway June want to break the mold. They know women’s lives are far more diverse, and even though their sound is rooted in the past, their stories are very much of the here and now.
“You won’t hear a lot of synthetic anything in our music,” says Naomi, “but we’re modern women living in a modern world, so what we say and what we want to write and sound like is modern, without even trying.”
Continues Jennifer, “Everything we write is what we know – it’s from the heart.”
Case in point is Runaway June’s debut single “Lipstick” - a breakup song that’s actually upbeat and positive. Its central idea is that sometimes breakups ARE for the best, and that a girl should be with someone who ruins her lipstick, not her mascara. But holding true to their promise not to be man-bashers, the girls barely even mention the heartbreaker in the story, instead focusing on the good guy who’s still out there.
“It’s not preachy,” says Naomi. “But it’s something I would want to say to my little sisters.”
With their high-voltage harmonies kicking the song off, “Lipstick” (produced by Mickey Jack Cones) is the perfect intro to this new group.
“It’s like ‘Here we are! We’re a vocal trio. It’s gonna be harmonies,’” says Jennifer. “For some reason, whatever we have together really works. I feel like what I’m lacking they have and what they’re lacking I have. We’re great individually, but we’re the best together.”
“Without planning it, we all have the same taste in music and the same feel for it, and the same things we want to say,” Naomi agrees. “You can’t really design that.”
With that, the new trio lock eyes and smile, sharing a silent moment of realization before Jennifer sums up their happiness: “I think we all know we have something special.”
Raised in Corvallis, Oregon, Jackson Michelson kicked off his country career on the West Coast, carving out a sound that blended the rootsy twang of the American South with the sunny, feel-good spirit of the Pacific Coast. Nashville — the official capital of country music — lay 2,300 miles to the southeast, but Michelson focused on his home turf first, building an audience of West Coast fans who were drawn to his high-energy shows and relatable songwriting. By the time he did move to Nashville, he'd already spent years on the road, growing his fan base show-by-show and earning a record contract with Curb Records in the process.
It's been a wild ride for the man who grew up in the "Grass Seed Capital of the World," listening to the diverse sounds of his mother's favorite country songs and his Dad's soul records.
"Corvallis is a small college town," he says of his Oregon home, whose farms supply much of the town's teenage population with work during the warmer months. "You go to school, and in the summer you work on the farm starting at age 12. You either bale hay or drive the combine. That's what most kids do, every single year."
Once his older brother landed a record deal as a Christian artist, though, Michelson found himself with a different sort of summertime gig: selling t-shirts and CDs at his sibling's gigs. Touring the country at a young age lit a fire inside Michelson, who began playing in bands back at home. He started writing original music, too, drawing on his own experiences to create songs that balanced high-energy hooks with good-natured, real-world storylines. It was music shaped by what he listened to and where he came from.
Songs like "The Good Life," which has since become a popular track on SiriusXM radio, helped spread Michelson's music to new fans across the country. Most of the grunt work, though, was done on the road, where Michelson delivered more than 100 shows per year. He opened for artists like Lee Brice, Blake Shelton and Frankie Ballard, earning new fans along the way. To him, those fans were everything. They were his muse, his support system, his champions. Crowd interaction became a crucial part of every Jackson Michelson show, and he always ended each gig the same way: by meeting fans, shaking hands and becoming friends with those who enjoyed his music.
"Crowd engagement is so important to me," he says. "My show is just as much about the band paying attention to the crowd, as the band putting on a show for the crowd. It's not just about us; it's about the experience we're all gonna have together."
Now, with a record deal under his belt, Michelson is prepping for the next phase of his career. There are new shows to play, new songs to be written and new opportunities to explore. But he's still the boy from Corvallis, happy to sing about "The Good Life" — a life he's built himself, show by show and song by song — to an audience that continues to grow.
Gunnar & The Grizzly Boys
Like the apple of your eye, Gunnar & The Grizzly Boys (GGB) are just what the doctor ordered! GGB have fashioned a style that leader Gunnar Nyblad describes as, “Country music with a Michigan root. In other words, GGB’s country rocks! With a young beat and a driving force, the honest storytelling grabs your attention while the music makes you smile. The energy of a live Grizzly Boys show explodes into the audience like a dose of adrenalin. Gunnar, who still farms the family apple and fruit orchards he’s been working all his life, is the conductor and lyrical leader of this band of Michiganders who came together during stages of his young life. While attending Michigan State University for an agricultural degree, Gunnar introduced his childhood friend, bass player Rob Mason (Kent City, MI) to his college buddies, lead guitarist Shane Grehan (Alpena, MI); guitarist/keyboardist Chris Newberg (Rockford, MI); and drummer Joe Connolly (Rochester Hills, MI). Gunnar and Rob had sung together and been in a Blink 182-styled band when they were youngsters. But deep in his heart, Gunnar knew that he had, indeed, been country his whole life and he put together the band that could convey the sound fans around Michigan wanted to hear. The group debut was opening for Justin Moore in 2009 to a sold out crowd at The Intersection in Grand Rapids. The Intersection continued to book GGB, now playing around the state, for Nashville acts until GGB reached headline status. At the same time, they played WBCT’s Birthday Bash and WYCD’s Detroit Hoedown. By 2013, GGB played the inaugural Live Nation Faster Horses festival in Brooklyn, MI, and by 2015 were on the main stage. They also were playing major festivals around the country in Florida, Delaware, Minnesota, Nevada and the Deadwood Jam in South Dakota. GGB’s release of the popular anthem “Standard American” on Average Joes Mud Digger 5 brought national awareness for the band, which had opened shows for the label’s Colt Ford, as well as Florida Georgia Line, Kid Rock, Brantley Gilbert and many others. SiriusXM’s The Highway started playing the song in June of 2014, along with local radio stations. It proved to be a hit, selling over 32,000 downloads in the US and Canada. Both the lyric and official video proved to be quite popular on YouTube, something the band had been known for. On April Fool Day, 2013, GGB put out a video that appeared as if they had performed “Could Be Me” in three trucks that travelled in front of the Google video street car. The hilarious performance topped 500,000 views almost immediately as was covered in Reddit.com and the Huffington Post. In 2015, the band also released high-quality videos for a new song, “Pedal To The Floor”, and a remake of their own “Country Boy Tan Lines.” Back in 2010, Gunnar & The Grizzly Boys self-released their 12-song debut independent album Homegrown and followed it in 2011 with a 5-song EP Country My Whole Life. In 2013, the Grizzly Boys put out the North Country (EP) (produced by Ken Coomer). With a wide range of musical influences from classic country to Detroit rock to 90s punk, Gunnar & The Grizzly Boys are one-of-a-kind in a genre of music that seems to be becoming one-in-the-same.