Garth Brooks, Fun
(Only available to Amazon Music subscribers, but listeners can sample the album here)
From his self-titled debut album 31 years ago, Brooks has always known his strength: not trying to be anyone but himself, not even his hero George Strait (though “That’s What Cowboys Do” sounds like it fell off a Strait album). He’s never paid attention to trends or fads to curry radio’s favor. But when you’re the top-selling solo artist in the U.S., calling your own shots is not only your prerogative, it’s mandatory. Many of the oft-delayed Fun’s 15 songs, including previous singles “The Road I’m On,” “All Day Long” and “Dive Bar” with Blake Shelton, live up to the upbeat title, as does Cajun twister “Party Gras (The Mardi Gras Song),” but there’s a lot more going on in this diverse set. Brooks shows off his underrated soulful side on the gospel-tinged, rollicking “Amen” (which is about anything but heavenly pursuits), and he and Charley Pride are beautifully simpatico on “Where the Cross Don’t Burn,” a duet about the enduring friendship between a young white boy and older black man, despite racist times. Lovers of such songs as “The Change” will likely champion “The Courage of Love,” a lush, anthemic turn about finding the strength to do what’s right, and fans of his wife, Trisha Yearwood, will eat up their cover of A Star Is Born’s “Shallow,” where she holds a powerful command. Brooks’ fans know he always reserves the last spot on the album for his favorite song and “(Sometimes You’ve Got to Die To) Live Again,” a dramatic, piano- and string-based ballad featuring Brooks’ supple vocals soaring from falsetto to arena rocker with ease, will likely be a listener favorite as well.
Morgan Wallen, “Livin’ the Dream”
The newly crowned CMA new artist of the year drops three tracks from his forthcoming 30-track set, Dangerous: The Double Album. “Somebody’s Problem” is an acoustic charmer about realizing you’re happily about to take on someone else’s problems as you fall in love and “Still Goin’ Down” hits all the usual tropes about pride in small-town life, but the real winner for Wallen here, lyrically and musically, is the dark “Livin’ the Dream,” which gives insight into the isolating and often corrosive effects of stardom (all the more illuminating given Wallen’s issues earlier this fall that led to his losing his SNL musical guest spot). It’s arresting in its honesty.
Chris Young & Kane Brown, “Famous Friends”
Brown has been duetting with lots of folks across the musical spectrum lately, including Swae Lee and Khalid, but he comes home to his country roots on this snappy uptempo tune with Young. They name-check various counties in Tennessee as they reminisce about their famous friends there — the local heroes who never make it to the big city, content to be big fish in small ponds. Unlike Garth, they’ve got “friends in high places,” as they salute the local sheriff, preacher and teacher. The earworm of the fall and winter is undoubtedly No. 1-bound as these two “famous friends” complement each other perfectly.
Lee Brice, Hey World
Brice’s new set has already spawned two No. 1s, “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” with Carly Pearce, and “One of Them Girls.” For the casual fan, Brice’s “everyman” appeal hides his superpower as one of Nashville’s top songwriters. He co-wrote all the tracks here with fellow heavy-hitters, and the tunes reflect a wide range of topics, from country living and drinking to weightier themes. Not every one of the 15 tracks here rises to the level of current single “Memory I Don’t Mess With” (a worthy successor to “More Than a Memory,” the Brice-penned 2007 No. 1 for Garth Brooks), but songs like “Save the Roses,” a tune written from the perspective of a dead person at his funeral, are keepers from first listen.
Russell Dickerson feat. Florida Georgia Line, “It’s About Time”
“It’s about time for a drink,” Dickerson sings on this uptempo party of a song that will make you forget every one of your troubles and make you want to open up a cold one yesterday. The sung/spoken tune is as lightweight as they come and blessedly so, given these dark times. Look for “We’re ready as truck stop ice” to become your next catchphrase.
Koe Wetzel, Sellout
This isn’t your grandfather’s country: Wetzel’s first album after officially signing with Columbia Records (hence the title) comes with plenty of explicit lyrics warnings. But the Texas country/rock hybrid quickly shows he’s lost none of his independent edge or unpredictability. “Crying From the Bathroom” is slow building, explosive rock kiss-off to an ex-friend, while “Lubbock” will have you two-stepping around your living room. Wetzel sounds like he’s been influenced as much by Soundgarden as by Hank Williams: “SideChick” sounds straight out of ‘90s Seattle, both in its grunginess and content (“Why won’t you love me,” Wetzel drones over and over to the sound of pills rattling in the background). All the better to segue into “Drug Problem,” a heavy mid-tempo rocker. Wetzel, whose voice has an arresting clarity and emotion, co-wrote or wrote all of the tracks on the set, except for the unsettling “Outcast.”
Collin Raye, Scars
“I told you you were dead to me when you walked out the door”: So kicks off ’90s hitmaker Raye’s first album of all-new material since 2009. It’s a helluva opening statement, but “Ghost Story” is just the tip of the iceberg. Produced by David Ferguson, Scars is an apt title for an album that meets Raye where he is now: older, wiser, bent but not broken. The title track, a poignant duet with Miranda Lambert, is a standout, as is heartbreaker “Dancing Alone in the Street.” To be sure, there are some upbeat moments, like “Never Going Back There Again” (which, inconceivably, recalls Don Henley’s “All She Wants to Do Is Dance”) and the yodeling “Rodeo Girl” featuring Vince Gill, but the beauty is found in the hard-won experiences here. The album ends with “Mama Sure Could Sing,” written by Raye and his brother, and largely sung a cappella. Though new, it feels like it’s been around forever. The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach plays electric guitar throughout.
Sarah Buxton, Signs of Life
Buxton, who has written tunes recorded by Keith Urban, Big & Rich, Gary Allan, The Band Perry, Trisha Yearwood and Florida Georgia Line, steps back into the spotlight on this pop-influenced EP. Set opener “Some Things Don’t Change” sounds straight off a Sheryl Crow album, while “Little Bit Better” allows Buxton’s vulnerable vocals to shine on the acoustic guitar-based ballad.
Ashland Craft, “Two Wildflowers and a Box of Wine”
New Big Loud signee makes a big loud entrance with the captivating Southern rock-tinged, chugging track that recalls Gretchen Wilson. The romance is real as she and her beau take some time away from the rat race for each other and indulge in some simple pleasures. Co-written by Craft, the sinewy song shows off a strong new talent.
Dillon Carmichael, “Hot Beer”
Honky-tonker Carmichael returns with a song that comes with quite the pedigree. The rowdy track was produced by Jon Pardi and co-written by unstoppable hitmaker Ashley Gorley. Carmichael’s low twang is as authentic as it comes, as is his disgust as he declares he’d rather drink a hot beer than get back with his ex, who cheated and lied and wrecked his Ford. In Carmichael’s mind, drinking a hot beer is convincingly roughly akin to sticking a hot poker in your eye…perhaps worse.
Robert Counts, “What Do I Know”
The official music video emerges for Counts’ gritty, swampy tune that recalls Brantley Gilbert. “Dirt on my hands, sweat on my blue collar/ Got everything I need right here in the holler,” he sings in this defiant tune as workers go about their jobs in the country, not kowtowing at all to city slickers who will never understand.
Hannah Dasher, “Girls Call Tte Shots”
Big-haired and big-personality Hannah Dasher shines on this understated, throughly country midtempo ballad about how boys may think they’re running the show, but the smart ones know “guys buy the drinks, girls call the shots.” Her voice has just the right amount of leather and lace.