Join music journalist, critic and historian Rich Kienzle as he chronicles country music ... and a lot more.

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  • Rodney Crowell
    Music critic Rich Kienzle reviews Rodney Crowell's "Tarpaper Sky."
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    Music critic Rich Kienzle reviews Ronnie Milsap's "Summer Number Seventeen." [6:02]
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    P-G pop music critic Scott Mervis talks with Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive. Country music critic Rich Kienzle reviews David Nail's "I'm A Fire."
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    P-G pop music critic Scott Mervis talks with Adam Granduciel of The War on Drugs. Country music critic Rich Kienzle reviews "Reflections," the latest from Don Williams
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    Country music critic Rich Kienzle reviews "Lucky" by Suzy Bogguss. [6:38]
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    Music critic Rich Kienzle reviews "From His Head to His Heart to His Hands," a collection of recordings by guitar great Mike Bloomfield.
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    P-G pop music critic Scott Mervis talks with Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, and music critic Rich Kienzle reviews the" Inside Llewyn Davis" soundtrack.
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    Music critic Rich Kienzle shares his picks for the top records of 2013.
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    Music critic Rich Kienzle looks at several interpretations of the Charles Brown classic "Merry Christmas Baby."
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    Country music critic Rich Kienzle reviews Jake Owen's "Days of Gold."
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Yesterday, you got my favorites. These are, for my money, the worst of the year, a blend of established acts and newcomers.  In most cases, the producers are to blame, since they carry the clout in Nashville. In other cases, the artists themselves are partly responsible.  Country record sales were up in 2012, and no doubt real talents like Taylor Swift, Eric Church, Kenny Chesney, Kellie Pickler and so on were responsible for that rise. But some of it was also attributable to acts like those you see here.   Remember, I'm talking about the merits (or lack thereof) of the music.  How much (or little) it sells is irrelevant in my book.

LIONEL RICHIE : Tuskegee (Mercury Nashville)

The year's biggest and most overblown marketing stunt tries to revive Richie's career by moving him into Nashville mode, pairing him with contemporary and veteran country stars ranging from Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers to Darius Rucker and Shania Twain to rehash his hits. Contrived from the word go, nowhere does Richie try anything different with these classic numbers. He's an icon and always will be. Given that, he really did not need this forced victory lap. But hey, it went Platinum, that’s all it was ever really designed to do.

LITTLE BIG TOWN: Tornado (Capitol Nashville)

A mediocre 80's quartet group whose vocal harmonies propelled them into Nashville, they found a warm reception in an industry clearly running out of fresh ideas. Most tunes were written by no less than three collaborators, two, "Leavin' In Your Eyes" and "On Your Side of the Bed" have six co-writers.  It reaffirms the adage about too many cooks spoiling the broth when it comes to songwriting. In all, it's yet another example of Nashville regurgitating hoary pop cliches and aiming them at aging, disenfranchised, rock fans.

AARON LEWIS: The Road (Blaster)

The lead singer of the rock band Staind has had success recording country on his debut EP.  His approach, fully realized on his first full-length album, is all smoke and mirrors. Yes, he has a great voice. No doubt of that. But the songs, all but one of them Lewis originals, sound like he grabbed a ton of current contemporary country, listened to it carefully, took notes and wrote songs that fit the patterns. Nowhere in this one-size-fits-all material is there a glimmer of Lewis's own compositional voice. While a rocker like Darius Rucker made a transition to country that's authentic and organic. Lewis's doesn't feel that way for even a second.  Here's my podcast review.


A blues-rocking American idol winner shoved into the Nashville meat grinder (the same one Music Row uses on most other new acts), resulting in an album that masks James' real potential in a fog of generic production and manufactured songs co-written with some of Music Row's biggest hacks. The rare moments where he breaks through underscore the travesty of this record.  He needs a producer who makes the most of his talents and doesn't force him into a mold.

LOVE & THEFT (RCA Nashville)

Photogenic? Yes, but this pair of lightweights are so shallow and fluffy they make Rascal Flatts seem daring by comparison. The subject matter adheres to current Music Row fashion: trucks, hot girls, hot girls in trucks. With vapid harmonies and nonexistent passion, everything about them rings false. They opened concerts for Taylor Swift, who regardless of what some think, is a genuinely gifted singer and writer. Clearly they didn't learn much, and probably never will.

Comments (5)Add Comment
written by BLUZER, January 08, 2013 - 06:37 AM

What, only five? Surely in a year when seemingly the whole world went 'PSY-chotic' there were more than just these few rotten country apples.

(not sure if this qualifies but here it is anyway)
written by Rich Kienzle, January 08, 2013 - 06:44 AM

Bluzer, Miley's DAD didn't qualify as country in my mind. 20 years ago I was writing a country music column for Request Magazine, available in the Sam Goody record store chain. The editors allowed reviewers free rein as far as comments.

Here's what I said in the column about his 1994 "Storm in the Heartland" album.

Speaking of manufactured talent, Billy Ray Cyrus’s Storm in the Heartland (Mercury) features “Achy Breaky” clones like “Deja Blue,” and “Roll Me Over” and a “Southern pride” number, “Redneck Heaven.” The rest are the usual mix of ballads, arena-rockers and macho anthems like “A Heart With Your Name On It.” None are better or worse than his past recordings. Two standouts are “Enough is Enough” and “Geronimo” which boast lyrics that make no sense whatsoever (or is this the genesis of redneck psychedlia?). The back of the album warns that “this album was made to be played loud.” It doesn’t help.

I'd write the same thing today.
written by csf, January 08, 2013 - 08:30 AM
IMO most of the music that is considered as Country is merely Top 40 music, and it's been that way for a while
written by LarryZ, January 08, 2013 - 08:36 AM
One thing - although Hootie & Blowfish's darious Rucker may be a 'country 'veteran' as you say, he's part of the problem. I mean did the guy have country in his soul his entire life and finally made the switch from bland pop/rock star, or is his just trying to go country because his career was dead, and then countinues in country today because had some surprising success? Anyway thanks Rich smilies/smiley.gif
written by Rich Kienzle, January 08, 2013 - 03:52 PM

Larry, please read my comment again. I didn't say Rucker was a country "veteran." He isn't. But his country side strikes me as real and honest. I'm not sure his Hootie career was necessarily dead.

Check out my "Believe Your Ears" podcast this week where I review Lewis's album with audio clips. You'll see what I mean. This is the link.


I will say this: I don't care what roots an artist has, if they make country that's real, original and authentic. Conway Twitty began in country as a kid but became a rock star. When his rocking career ended, he recorded great, raw and real country hits for 20 years.

Jerry Lee Lewis saved his career after years in the wilderness sparked by the scandal over his marrying his cousin. Finally in the late 60's he began recording country ballads like "Another Place, Another Time" with enormous success. He still did his rockers onstage, and eventually returned to recording rock as well. Country still remains a major part of his repertoire.

Jon Bon Jovi did a Nashville album titled Lost Highwaaythat was fresh but had no real overtones of country. I didn't review it as a country album. The co-producer was an ex-rock guitarist named Dann Huff, whose production work I often criticize.

In some cases, I've been rougher on retro acts who self-consciously try to re-create classic country note by note and they add nothing of their own. I have no standard agenda. I call every individual record as I see it.

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