2012 CMA Country Christmas
Even if you’re still taking down your Halloween decorations or desperately searching for last year’s paper turkey, you have to face the fact that the year’s most commercial holiday is lurking around the corner. But before tons of ice and gangs of Rockettes invade Opryland, another star-studded tradition, the CMA Country Christmas, will set the mood for the season. The annual show, recorded in advance and televised on ABC closer to the holidays, features yet another glittery lineup of contemporary country stars. Hosted by Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, the evening will include performances from Lady Antebellum, Martina McBride, Little Big Town, Dierks Bentley, The Band Perry, and token pop acts John Legend and Colbie Caillat. If this is your kind of music, it’s pretty much the best show ever. If it’s not, just stuff some coal in your ears and take the family anyway.
Rossville GA | Pop
Lauren Alaina’s debut album, Wildflower, is a vibrant bouquet of compelling stories, powerful emotions and soaring vocals that is as irresistible and delightful as Lauren herself.
Lauren captured America’s heart when she appeared on American Idol earlier this year and revealed her enthusiasm, humor and warmth, as well as a commanding voice with an impressive range that has been compared to the genre’s premier vocalists, including Carrie Underwood and Martina McBride. She helped make the show one of the most popular yet. A record-breaking 122.4 million votes were cast for the finale, which garnered 29.3 million viewers, as well as 38.6 million who tuned in to see the winner’s name announced. She signed her record deal shortly thereafter and began recording her debut album with producer Byron Gallimore.
The result is a fitting musical portrait of the 16 year old’s personality, optimism and life experiences. There’s sauce and sentimentality, as well as an unwavering hope for the future and a belief in true love. “Wildflower is the perfect name for my first album,” she says. “I would consider myself a wildflower because wildflowers are sweet, but then they have a little bit of spunk to them – they are ’wildflowers,’” she says. “I like to have a lot of fun and I’m really sassy.
“I tried to get songs that were all different so everyone would have a part that they liked because people are different,” she says. “I tried to make it so that it would please everyone. It’s just me; that is what the album is: it’s Lauren Alaina. That is the common thread.”
Lauren’s inimitable spirit is showcased in “Georgia Peaches,” a fun celebration of Southern girls that proclaims, “Love to dance and we love to flirt, ain’t afraid of a little dirt.” Lauren says, “I am a Georgia peach. Even if you aren’t from Georgia, you can appreciate it because it’s the type of song that will get you up off of your feet and dancing.”
Lauren co-wrote “Funny Thing About Love” with Brett James and Luke Laird after discussing her own romantic experiences with them. “I feel like it turned out really great and I’m excited to see how people will respond to my own style of writing, as well as my style of music, period. It’s about when you like someone and they don’t like you, and when you don’t like them anymore, they like you. Timing is everything. When you are young, it never really works out. You are always on a different page.”
“Growing Her Wings” explores the coming-of-age quest for independence through the tale of a teenage girl who reads Cosmopolitan magazine, against her mother’s wishes, after she’s grounded for kissing the boy next door. “She’s growing her wings behind closed doors and she’s ready to fly away,” Lauren says. “I felt like that is who I was six months ago and I’ve formed my wings and I’m flying.”
In “She’s a Wildflower,” she encourages girls to believe in themselves by recognizing the beauty they possess. “As a teenage girl, you are your own worst critic,” says Lauren, who admits that she hasn’t been immune to self-doubt. “When I first heard the song, it made me want to cry because I know what it was like to be the freckled-face girl with a gap in her teeth,” she says. “Girls always put themselves down when they are really wildflowers and need to go for it.”
While she’s always 100 percent pro-girl, she’s not afraid to put flashy and shallow boys in their place, as she does in “I’m Not One of Them.” But she describes the innocence of young love in “Tupelo” and sings the praises of nice guys in “One Of Those Boys,” in which she reveals a weakness for jeans-wearin’ country boys who mind her curfew and love their mamas. “I am singing about a boy who is perfect, but he has all of these flaws that make me love him.”
“The Locket” is a poignant song about the power of love, both between a man and a woman and a grandmother and her granddaughter. “The grandmother has Alzheimer’s and she is starting to forget things and the granddaughter is reading out of a diary what has happened in her life,” she says. “It tells this beautiful story about these two people who fell in love when they were young kids and they grow old together.”
Lauren was surrounded by love and music as she was raised in Rossville, Ga., by her father, J.J., a chemical technician, and mother, Kristy, a transcriptionist. Her mother and older brother, Tyler, sang and her father is a multi-instrumentalist. Her parents played country and rock music in the house and Lauren favored music to television, especially Shania Twain, Aerosmith and the Dixie Chicks.
When she was 3, her mother was listening to the Dixie Chicks’ “When You Were Mine” until she turned the car off, but Lauren kept singing, hitting every note and word perfectly. Her mother bought the karaoke version of the Dixie Chicks for Lauren to sing to as she sat on the bar where they ate breakfast at Lauren’s grandmother’s restaurant.
Her first public performances came with a kids’ choir as well as an annual vacation spot that offered karaoke. Word soon spread about her talent and she began receiving invitations to perform. Beginning in elementary school, she routinely landed the lead roles in school plays.
At age nine, she wrote her first song, “She’s a Miracle,” after her aunt was in a car wreck. She sang in church, restaurants, family holiday gatherings and anywhere else. Says Lauren, “I would grab up every opportunity I could,” Lauren says. “I would go karaoke at any place within a 30-mile radius of where I lived. I would drive an hour just to sing. Any competition I would hear about I would enter.”
At age 8, she entered the talent competition of the Southern Stars Pageant and won, and the next year was selected to perform on the Kids talent stage at Chattanooga’s Riverbend Festival. She continued to perform on that stage annually until age 12, when she won the competition that allowed her to perform on the festival’s big stage. At age 10, she won the American Model and Talent Competition in Orlando, beating out 1,500 kids. She later joined the Georgia Country Gospel Music Association’s children’s group that performed at places such as Six Flags.
“I started coming to Nashville when I was about 12,” says Lauren, who enjoyed a normal childhood of playing softball, cheerleading and working at a pizza parlor. “I would go into the bars on Broadway before 6 p.m. and walk up to the people on the stage and ask if I could sing and they would let me.” Offstage, she was continuing to develop as a songwriter. Little did she know that she would be returning to Nashville to sign a major label record deal.
It was during Idol that she first heard her debut single and first hit, “Like My Mother Does.” “When they started playing it for me, I started crying because I went through this whole crazy journey and the only person who was there for me every step of the way was my mom. She didn’t get any praises for it and I got all of the attention. I thought the song would be a great way to say thank you for her for all that she does for me. When she came in and heard it, she cried. It was a sign. Everybody was crying, even the piano player.”
This year has been one of the most incredible and emotional years of her life. "When you are 16, you change a lot from the time you are 16 to 17 to 18. I got to change on national television, so everybody watched me grow up over the past year.
"I feel like people are going to continue to get to watch me grow up. It's cool that I have been able to meet so many people that I otherwise would have never been able to meet. I have been able to accomplish so many goals, like being on American Idol and releasing a single and now my first album. I know there is more to come in the future and I can't wait to see how everything unfolds."
Norman OK | Country
"Vince Gill is quite simply a living prism refracting all that is good in country music. He uses the crystal planes of his songwriting, his playing, and his singing to give us a musical rainbow that embraces all men and spans all seasons." - Kyle Young/Country Music Foundation on Vince's induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Read more at http://www.VinceGill.com
Nashville TN | Christian & Gospel
Faith Hill has established herself as one of the music industry’s top vocalists, with a voice that is as powerful as it is recognizable. Her nineteen-year career has been highlighted by the sale of over 30 million records worldwide, during which time she has celebrated thirteen #1 singles and twenty #1 videos. She is the only female artist to have her last 3 studio albums -- 1999’s BREATHE, 2002’s CRY and 2005’s FIREFLIES -- all debut consecutively at #1 on Billboard’s Top Pop Album Chart and Country Chart.
Her new single, “Come Home,” was released on November 9 and her new album is due in stores in Spring 2012.
Faith is a five-time Grammy Award winner, who has also won 3 Country Music Association Awards, 12 Academy of Country Music Awards, 4 American Music Awards, and 4 People’s Choice Awards. Her marketability knows no equal. Her ability to draw television audiences nationwide is evidenced by the success of her own network television specials; 2000’s CBS Network broadcast of “FAITH!”, NBC Network’s broadcast of 2002’s “FAITH HILL: When The Lights Go Down,” 2005’s “FAITH HILL: FIREFLIES,” as well as hosting CBS’ “HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS” in 2008 and 2009. In 2008, Faith released her first Christmas album, JOY TO THE WORLD, and performed those songs with an orchestra for PBS’ Soundstage that same year.
For the 4th consecutive year, Faith is once again the voice of NBC’s Sunday Night Football’s weekly show open. In 2009, when Faith performed America The Beautiful at the Super Bowl, she became the only country artist to ever perform both America The Beautiful and the National Anthem at the Super Bowl. She performed the Anthem at Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000. She has performed at every major awards show including multiple appearances at The Academy Awards, The Grammy Awards and VH1’s Divas 1999 and 2000. In 2001, Faith appeared on “America: A Tribute To Heroes,” a benefit for the rescue workers and victims of the September 11th attacks and in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, she appeared on NBC’s “A Concert for Hurricane Relief.”
Faith co-headlined 2006’s Soul2Soul II Tour, which became the highest grossing country tour of all time and the most attended of the year, in any musical genre. In fact, with the tour’s wrap taking place in 2007, Soul2Soul II Tour was and is the highest grossing multi-year North American tour in country music history. It was selected by Pollstar Magazine as the “Major Tour of 2006” over industry powerhouses including Madonna and the Rolling Stones. This tour came on the heels of 2000’s Soul2Soul Tour which was one of that year’s top grossing and most successful US tours.
In 2009, Coty, Inc. debuted Faith’s first fragrance called Faith Hill Parfums. Her second fragrance, Faith Hill True, arrived in stores in the fall of 2010.
Raised in Star, Mississippi, Faith moved to Nashville at the age of 19. In 1993, her debut single, “Wild One”, spent four weeks at #1 and from there she never looked back. Faith Hill has based her career on dedication, passion and commitment. Combined with her unparalleled vocal talents and style she has become a sought after entertainer and has firmly planted herself at the top of the music scene, where it’s easy to see (and hear) that she might just stay for a while.
Faith is married to fellow country music superstar Tim McGraw and together they have 3 children…Gracie, Maggie & Audrey.
Little Big Town
It takes a perfect storm to make a great album – an audacious mix of tension and release, passion and calm, love and violence.
Hallmarks associated with all true forces of nature, these mighty attributes were exactly what Little Big Town had in their corner as they blew into the studio in late February for the whirlwind recording session that produced their strongest work yet, their aptly titled fifth album, Tornado.
LBT didn’t set out to break any land speed records in the studio. However, considering that the majority of Tornado took just seven days to record, that’s exactly what the recording process felt like to Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook, a group famous for their trademark four-part harmonies.
The elements that would produce Tornado started brewing earlier this year. After doing a bit of soul-searching, the band realized they were ready for a change. Despite a solid 13-year career during which they’ve sold 1.5 million records, racked up multiple Grammy, CMA and ACM nominations, and crafted Top 10 country hits (“Boondocks” and “Bring It On Home” from their platinum 2005 album The Road to Here, and “Little White Church” from their acclaimed 2010 release, The Reason Why), LBT was feeling a little too secure in their time-tested way of doing things in the studio.
They decided to shake things up a little.
The change started with the draft of producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Patty Griffin), who stood in for their longtime collaborator Wayne Kirkpatrick at the boards. “We adore Wayne: he really helped us in the early days when we were trying to define our sound,” Karen says, fondly. “And he’s part of the reason why we’re a band. We love our past records, and we wouldn’t change anything about how we made them, but we wanted to break up our routine for this one and get a little bit out of our comfort zone.”
LBT was already familiar with Joyce’s work, both as a producer and a performer: a noted guitarist, he had played with the band on The Reason Why. However, there’s a big difference between dropping by the studio for a few hours to gig on one track and masterminding an entire album.
If there were any lingering doubts that Joyce was a good fit for the project, they all fell away when the producer showed up to his first meeting with the band brandishing a plan for a recording experience that was unlike anything else they had ever done before.
“Jay was the only guy we talked to who said, ’I know what I would do with you guys. I’ve loved your other records, but I have some things I’d love to try,’” Karen recalls. “When he talked to us about what he wanted to do, there was no hesitation,” Jimi adds. “He was all there; in Jay’s mind, he had already started working.” The band quickly followed suit, launching into what would become a wonderful cyclone of a recording session. Rehearsals began in late February; a month later, they had recorded the entire album.
Adapting to this swift course of action was admittedly a bit of a shock to the band’s system. The week before entering the studio, LBT was on the road, removed from any kind of preproduction. “It was Sunday night, and we were going into the studio the next morning,” Karen says, “and there were still 25 potential songs that needed to be whittled down. And we needed to figure out who was gonna sing them, and in what key, with what arrangement … We panicked. But when I called Jay, he said, ’Don’t worry about it. Just show up here tomorrow and we’ll figure it out together.’”
Flying by the seat of their pants was an entirely new way of working for four avowed perfectionists accustomed to a much more conventional recording process. Joyce encouraged them to approach their work with feeling rather than reason. “He really pushed us,” says Kimberly. “We tend to toil over things; we like to rethink and discuss problems. Jay stopped us from doing that. Literally, we would be in the middle of talking something out, and he would tell us to stop thinking and start singing.”
“Less thinking, more singing” became LBT’s unofficial slogan as they followed Joyce’s plan of action, which was new to him as well. “The process wasn’t typical of how Jay works, either,” Jimi explains. “It was exciting to see what would happen. Because of that, there was a great energy all the time in the studio, and I think you can hear that on the record.”
If some of Joyce’s methods were foreign to the band, others were rooted in familiarity. For instance, the producer encouraged LBT to use their road band in the studio. “That ended up being a huge part of the energy and spontaneity that comes across on the album,” Kimberly says. “We have a natural chemistry with those guys,” Phillip adds. “We already loved playing with them on the road, so being with them in the studio made sense. It was amazing how great it felt.”
The team worked together, in one room, with Joyce taping everything, including four days of rehearsals. No recording was off-limits: some practice tracks ended up on the album. “Even if it was a loose version of what we going for, if it had the right vibe, it was used,” Karen says. Wishy-washiness was also stricken from the agenda, Phillip says: “If it didn’t come together fast, then it didn’t come together at all. We’d drop it.”
On the fifth day, the group headed to Nashville’s Sound Emporium to start recording. To keep the sessions feeling organic and relaxed, Joyce asked the band to pretend that they were on tour; each session was treated like a live show. “He told us to come in dressed to go on stage, and to do whatever we normally do before we play a show,” says Karen. “We’d go to dinner and come back laughing with some drinks in us, in a great mood,” Phillip remembers.” And it continued into the studio.
The first point of action was clocking the languid, sexy strains of “Pontoon,” the album’s first single. (“We did it first because we wanted to start out having fun,” Karen says. “There was a psychology to how we did things.”)
A buoyant, light-hearted sing-along, “Pontoon” was written by Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird and Barry Dean. The song’s presence on the album is a direct result of the band’s conscious decision to include different writers in their process. “We always cut a few outside songs, but this time we wanted to really open it up and see what we could find, no matter where it comes from,” Karen says. Fun songs were a chief priority. “’Pontoon’ is crazy and silly, but sexy and smart, too. We’d never recorded anything like it.” The gamble paid off: released in April as the album’s first single, “Pontoon” is LBT’s first summertime party hit.
LBT eased through ten more songs during the session. “Front Porch Thing” is a happy anthem about proudly doing as little as humanly possible. “This song takes me back to my first love,” says Kimberly. “It’s playful and spirited and a big ol’ dose of feel-good. It’s so much fun to sing in the live show. We open it up with only vocals and it gets bigger and more rowdy as we go.”
The entire band shares co-writing credits with Lori McKenna on the yearning ballad “Your Side of the Bed,” an evocative inquiry into the mind of a distant lover. “I love that this lyric is so brutally honest,” Karen says. “There are times in a relationship when you allow things to come between you, so much so that it feels like an incredibly long way back to each other. It's a lonely place to be especially when you’re lying right next to someone you love.”
“Tornado” is a wicked threat from writers Natalie Hemby and Delta Maid that deftly compares a scorned woman to a force of nature that the band and its fellow Southerners know all too well. “Natalie played it for us one night and we were like, man, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a chick say, ’I’m a tornado,’” Karen says of the song, featuring an ominous chorus in which the singer threatens to destroy the house she shares with her wayward man, to “toss it in the air and put it in the ground/Make sure you’re never found.” “Yeah, it’s pretty badass,” Jimi agrees.
“Pavement Ends” and “On Fire Tonight,” which the band wrote with Laird, are balls-out party songs. “Can’t Go Back” sounds like a whispered prayer delivered by a quartet of kind kindred spirits. "The first time I heard it I knew I wanted it on this record,” Jimi says. “It has one of the most beautiful and haunting melodies I've ever heard - one of those songs that feels like it’s washing over you as you listen to it. It’s one of my favorite things we've ever cut."
The album ends with “Night Owl,” a soothing lullaby caringly penned by all four members of the group that promises comfort and love at the end of an oft-traveled road.
The cooing chorus of “Night Owl” was achieved by the band singing into an echo chamber. “ At the studio, there’s a little hole in the wall that you go through to the chamber, where there are microphones set up to catch the echo. We all got inside to sing the ’who-o-oohs,’” Phillip remembers. (Kimberly and Jimi used the space to create the spooky whistles on “Tornado.” “They had a duel – a whistle-off in the chamber,” Karen jokes.)
“Self Made,” written by Karen and Jimi with Natalie Hemby and Jedd Hughes, was intentionally the last song to be recorded. A forceful testament to the challenges LBT has faced as a band and as individuals – challenges they’ve ultimately transcended – it’s become the band’s working mantra, “so we thought it was a good way to finish,” Karen says.
By the time “Self Made” was recorded, everyone had let down their guard, not to mention their hair, which gives the track extra energy and a special sense of urgency that was felt by everyone involved. “During the session our guitarist Johnny (Duke) asked Jay what advice he had for him, because there’s some amazing guitar work on that song,” Karen remembers. “And Jay’s, like, ’Release your inner monkey, man!’ He was standing on top of the speakers wearing big Chanel sunglasses - I don’t know where he got them – holding a bullhorn. On the track that made the album, you can hear him counting off: ’One, two, three - get it, Johnny!’ Jay said his heart was racing when we finished.”
“We all came off that session with our hearts beating out of our chests,” Phillips says. “When Karen and Jimi first played us that song, I instantly gravitated towards it because I love what it said: ’Born a survivor, like father, like gun.’ It was just cool.”
Beyond being a solid song, Phillip says the creation of “Self Made’ also represented a change in how the band members went about their work: “We were allowing ourselves to be open and creative in the writing process and good stuff was happening. I think we found that we were stretching ourselves and not just doing the same old things we had done before.”
Fond memories of their brief time in the studio notwithstanding, each member of the band is thrilled with the final product. “I think ’edge’ is a word that gets overused,” Karen says. “But this record does have a raw edge to it.” “It has a really different vibe to it,” Jimi agrees “It doesn’t sound like anything else on the radio right now.”
“There’s a confidence that permeates this album,” says Phillip. “And that applies to the sound of the vocals and the performances; it applies to the lyrics and the ways we’re emoting. We weren’t scared to perform it or say it from our heart. There was no tiptoeing around about it. It was about speaking the message clearly and as loudly as you can.”
For a band of Little Big Town’s stature, experience and esteem, this level of transparency and the decision to take the road less traveled into the studio are bold moves - ones they’re proud to have taken. “I read a quote recently that said you should do something everyday that scares you – it’s good for you,” Phillip says. “Well, at the beginning we were scared and nervous. But we would have never dreamed that it would come together so beautifully.”
Indeed, both gorgeous and fearsome, Tornado is nothing short of a force of nature.
Sharon KS | Country
After two decades in the music business, Martina McBride is starting over. Now signed to Republic Nashville, with new management (Clint Higham of Morris Artists Management), a new co-producer (Byron Gallimore), newly-spotlighted songwriting skills (she penned over half the songs on Eleven, her new CD), and a brand new spirit of accomplishment, Martina is swinging into high gear. And she couldn't be more thrilled.
"It really feels like starting over for me - but with a track record and with the success and experience I've had over the years," she explains. "I feel more mature and more confident, which comes with knowing yourself better. And there are a lot of opportunities now that I haven't had in a long time."
When her longtime contract with RCA Records expired in 2010, Martina revved up for new challenges ahead. "There comes a time when you have to step back and say, I need something different," she says. "It was a risk, but you have to do what feels right." After weighing her options, Martina decided to join two year-old Republic Nashville, part of the Big Machine Records family of labels. "We had a couple of offers that were really great," she notes, "but what really drew me in the end was Scott Borchetta and his reputation. When I met with him and his staff, their enthusiasm and passion for music were so evident - not only for the business but for the music. I really got the feeling that they get up every day and say, 'Wow! We get to be in the music business!" They have an innovative approach and such positive energy. It's contagious and something I wanted to be a part of."
Garner NC | Pop
Earning both a platinum and gold album before turning 20, Scotty McCreery is poised to become country's newest superstar. His deep voice and an irresistible sound create the perfect blend of contemporary and traditional country. With over 150 live shows under his belt across the US, Canada and the Philippines, McCreery has become a fan favorite appealing to all ages. His first headlining tour has been so successful--with numerous sell-outs and additional shows added--that a fall leg has been added to the 2013 tour.
After winning Season Ten of American Idol, Scotty immediately established himself as one of the hottest new stars in country music. His debut album was the best-selling solo album released by a country artist in 2011. Indeed, he became the youngest man in history to have his first album debut atop the all-genreBillboard Top 200 albums chart.
That album, Clear As Day, was certified platinum for sales of one million in just thirteen weeks. The first two singles from that album were each certified gold. In 2012, his Christmas album was also certified gold. He was named Top New Artist by Billboard and won best new artist awards at the Academy of Country Music Awards, the American Country Awards, and the CMT Awards. In the last two years, he has performed in Washington DC for the president as well as PBS' A Capitol Fourth, sung the national anthem at the World Series and performed in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The Robertson family of A&E Duck Dynasty fame recently invited him to provide entertainment on their 2014 Duck Dynasty Cruise.
He co-wrote his current single, "See You Tonight," which is climbing the charts. He is in the studio now with producer Frank Rogers ( Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker, Trace Adkins) finishing his second studio album which will be released this fall. An avid sports fan and outdoorsman, McCreery is also beginning his sophomore year at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
Glen Dale WV | Country
A rock provides a major clue to the heartbeat of Brad Paisley's Wheelhouse.
The piece, a silhouette of Paisley's homestate West Virginia, is embedded in one of two stone walls of the drum room in his converted home studio. The state represents the place where he first acquired the skills that coalesced into one of contemporary country's most important careers. The studio itself is where he essentially started over, producing himself for the first time and figuratively rebooting a career that was already the envy of most of Paisley's peers.
The rock reminder of West Virginia definitely belongs on the Middle Tennessee property. Paisley can't escape his past – nor would he want to. The 21 #1s, the three awards from ASCAP as the Country Songwriter/Artist of the Year, the 14 Country Music Association awards (including a win as Entertainer of the Year) and the 14 Academy of Country Music awards provide evidence that he has figured out how to connect in a big way with both the public and the country music business.
But as much as his past informs who he is, Paisley was inspired in this album to take a flying leap off a creative cliff. The album is called Wheelhouse, in part, because of the first line in the first song, "Southern Comfort Zone." The studio is now christened the Wheelhouse because Paisley changed his own comfort zone while recording the album.
"Whatever we do here," Paisley says in the studio's piano room, "whatever ends up coming out of here on an album, must end up eventually being in my wheelhouse. Because I've done it."
Much of what ended up among the 17 tracks on Wheelhouse was a result of Paisley's dedication to challenge. He'd never been his own producer, never commissioned a studio, never recorded an album without falling back on some of Nashville's studio musicians and never tackled some of the difficult themes that are present in the album. Certainly not in the way that he approached them on Wheelhouse.
"Every song was meant to incorporate something new for me, and to take some sort of twist you don't expect," Paisley explains. "Whether that be the lyric or the loop or the guest, or a different format like rap, or getting a comedian like Eric Idle, it needed to spin your head around somewhere.
"It's like my dog when you say his name followed by a command he doesn't understand. He's like, "Huh?" And he turns his head a little sideways. That's what I wanted every song to do, in one way or another."
Paisley did that in a big way with the album's first song and lead single, "Southern Comfort Zone," which incorporated a bevy of unpredictable elements – the voice of his late friend, Andy Griffith; pieces of the Southern folk standard "Dixieland"; and the Brentwood Baptist Church Choir. All of that was paired with Paisley's familiar voice and stunning guitar shredding while he challenged listeners to get out of their own comfort zones by seeing as much of the world as possible.
Embracing the song was not a challenge. "Southern Comfort Zone" became just his latest #1 single even while Paisley continued an 11-month sojourn with the album, which he wrapped in January 2013, just weeks before it was due to ship.
"I wrote a bunch of songs that aren't comfortable," he says. "And that was the point, really – for them to be vocally, musically, lyrically, thematically uncomfortable – or at least new enough to me that I think I had to stretch."
He did that in the songwriting process, writing to a pre-existing loop for the first time when he penned "Beat That Summer," the album's second single, with frequent collaborator Chris DuBois ("Welcome To The Future," "Old Alabama") and in-demand songwriter Luke Laird ("Pontoon," "Undo It"). Paisley took another fresh approach in sampling a classic country song, incorporating Roger Miller's "Dang Me" in "Outstanding In Our Field." And Paisley challenged himself yet again by threading Monty Python icon Eric Idle into the tongue-in-cheek marital commentary of "Harvey Bodine," the story of a henpecked husband who finds new life by dying.
You want more challenges? How about incorporating rap for the first time with the recitations of AAA singer/songwriter Mat Kearney, Grand Ole Opry member Charlie Daniels and iconic rapper LL Cool J?
But the biggest challenges might have come in Paisley's songwriting. The wit and thoughtfulness that have always been part of his work continue in Wheelhouse, but he pushes them to new extremes. The humor is particularly evident in "Death Of A Single Man" and the twisted "Karate," which manages to lighten two very heavy topics: domestic violence and karma. Even more challenging is Paisley's willingness to explore religious contradiction in "Those Crazy Christians" and the tragedy of discrimination in "Accidental Racist."
That song went through several incarnations before it finally found its properly sensitive voice. Paisley enlisted LL Cool J to write and deliver the song's counterpoint, sealing the deal as both of them stood on the stage of Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium, gazing at the balcony, ironically named the Confederate Gallery.
"'Accidental Racist' needed to be collaborative because I have no authority in terms of the other perspective," Paisley says. "I can only speak as a white Southerner. One of the greatest moments of my songwriting life was taking him for a ride around town after touring the Ryman. I'm playing the song, and he's banging on the dashboard and saying, 'This is important. I'm in.' Then he wrote his entire part himself. And I told him, 'You can say whatever you want. You want to tell me I'm crazy? Tell me I'm crazy. There's nothing off limits for you. Whatever you want to say in this song, you say it.' And he did."
It is the single most uncomfortable topic on the album. And it's exactly why Paisley was adamant that it belonged on Wheelhouse.
"What kind of an artist am I if I let the fear of consequences for art be take away my willingness to speak about what I believe in?" he asks rhetorically. "I couldn't look myself in the eye in the mirror if I was willing to just say, 'I think it's important and people need to hear it, but that scares me because I don't know what that'll do to my career, so I just won't put it on there.' I couldn't do that."
The Wheelhouse, the site for all of Paisley's self-challenge, was borne of his personal past. The studio was built in the home he and his wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley, occupied for several years at the beginning of their marriage. Once they built a new place, it became a guest house, but Paisley began to envision it as more of a creative space. His old bedroom had odd angles in its ceiling and closets that created perfect acoustics for a studio environment. He turned the living room into an expansive location for the piano, and used a tiled downstairs bathroom as an echo chamber. He built the drum room – with its rock walls and dynamic sound – in just a couple weeks before recording commenced in the spring of 2012.
Paisley employed his road band as his studio ensemble, a rare move in mainstream country, and they typically worked after dark on the project, sometimes finishing a session at 4:30 or 5 a.m., just in time to catch the tour bus for a ride to a concert date.
Part of the challenge of Wheelhouse was to embrace the humanity of the musicians. Technology was embraced for capturing sound or enhancing it. But it was limited if the intent was to slice every imperfection out of the recordings.
"We didn't fix much on this whole album," Paisley notes. "When you hear the band, it's essentially them playing the best they can, it's not an engineer fixing anything. That was my rule. We could fix something if there was something glaringly bad, but as far as fixes for the sake of perfection or whatever, they are not there. We didn't do any of that."
Nor did Paisley do that with his vocals. Recording on his own property gave him the freedom to write and re-write new lyrics to his songs at the last minute, and to do his vocal tracks on days when he was particularly inspired. Some of the songs represent him singing a line for the very first time.
Because he took a leap in producing, he was forced to take even greater command as a singer. Over time, the process increased his confidence and his strength as a vocalist, evident in the elongated notes in "I Can't Change The World" and "Officially Alive," and in the expressiveness of "Tin Can On A String," sung in a vocal booth that was formerly his closet.
"It was a different feeling," Paisley says of the process. "When I hadn't produced my records, I always really leaned on Frank Rogers to get things out of me. It's almost like he would have to crack a whip and make me sing. But when you're doing it yourself, for me, I had so much to prove and say, it was really up to me to step up to the plate."
Paisley challenged himself in one other important way. The sampled sound of a human heartbeat is introduced in "Tin Can," the 11th of the 17 tracks, and it continues pulsing underneath the remainder of Wheelhouse through the end of the finale, "Officially Alive," which Paisley wrote on his own as a summation.
As he experienced a creative rebirth on Wheelhouse, he began to ponder: When does one truly start living? He realized one experiences life most in the midst of personal challenge.
"You're alive when that girl you thought you'd marry is driving away in the limousine with someone else," he says. "And you're alive when you're standing in Paris looking at the Eiffel Tower, and you know when you go back to Nashville, you'll never be the same. And you're alive when you stand up for something you believe in and aren't afraid to do that. And you're alive when your first child is born, and that love you feel is so much larger than you ever imagined possible. That's why I wrote that. That song was meant to be the exclamation point."
It's the final piece of his transition as Paisley moves into the next phase of his career. He cannot – and will not – let go of his past. But he's also excited about the uncertainty of the future. The West Virginia stone is a reminder of where he's been. The Wheelhouse and its namesake album are the starting point for the rest of Brad Paisley's creative journey.
In just ten years, Rascal Flatts has become one of the most honored acts in country music history, reaching heights and achieving milestones reserved for the genre's elite. They have set more venue attendance records than any country act en route to ticket sales of six million and counting. They have sold 20 million albums and earned 11 #1 singles. All six of their albums are platinum or multi-platinum and every one is among Billboard's Top 100 Albums of the Decade. They have won more than three dozen awards from the ACM, CMA, AMA and People's Choice, among others, and they have received that ultimate honor for those who have impacted the culture--a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
"We have had an unreal ten years," says lead singer Gary Levox with an appreciative smile. "We've done things we couldn't have been able to dream."
Behind those statistics is an accomplishment more basic than numbers, more important than any trophy--for the past decade, the music of Rascal Flatts has been the soundtrack to countless lives. Songs like "These Days," "Mayberry," "What Hurts The Most," "My Wish," "Stand," "Here," "Here Comes Goodbye" and "Summer Nights" have soothed and uplifted, fired up, mellowed out and otherwise impacted millions.
"I'm humbled to think that the music we've been able to make has touched so many lives and moved so many people," says bass player/harmony vocalist Jay Demarcus. "The stories are just incredible and I think I'm most grateful for that."
"To this day," adds guitarist/harmony vocalist Joe Don Rooney, "we receive letters and e-mails about how a song like 'I'm Moving On' has impacted someone's life in some way or how 'Bless The Broken Road' was played at their wedding or how 'Stand' gave them the courage to stand up and fight the cancer out of their body and mind! That's powerful stuff, and that's the reason we're in the business, without question."
Their place in country music history may be assured, but Gary, Jay and Joe Don retain a newcomer's passion about capturing magic with each new project. Now, with the release of their latest, Nothing LIke This, they have done it once again, taking their career and their legacy another long step forward.
"We've reached back a little to what brought us here while moving forward at the same time," says Jay. "We concentrated more on our vocals and chemistry again and not so much on big production."
The album is a microcosm of all the things the band does well--Jay calls it "Rascal Flatts in a nutshell"--which is to say it touches on many of the best aspects of 21st-century country music. It is first and foremost uplifting, with songs like "Why Wait" and "Play" kicking off the proceedings with the call to enjoy life no matter what our circumstances. It features both the throwback groove of "They Try" and the fresh sparkle of "All Night To Get There." "Summer Young" is an uptempo celebration of the season of warmth and romance and "I Won't Let Go" is "You've Got A Friend" for the new millennium, a song steeped in the strength of love and friendship in times of trouble. The title cut finds a way to bring freshness to the subject of love and sees Gary bringing a disarming desperation to his vocal.
"One of the more special songs on this album for me is 'I Won't Let Go,'" says Joe Don. "Being a parent now and listening to that song really hits home and truly hits me in the heart."
Evident throughout is the group's ability to recognize the best in Nashville songwriting. "It's always been about the songs first," says Jay, "and boy did we get our hands on some gems!!
"We think we've got a good balance," says Joe Don, "between the really deep, sweet, meaningful ballads and the 'right at ya' uptempos that keep the party going." "I think there's something for everybody on this project," adds Gary, "and it's a full-length example of what makes us who we are."
Guesting on the project is Natasha Beddingfield, who joins the trio on "Easy." "We had a blast recording with Natasha," says Gary. "I've always been addicted to great singers and she is certainly one of the best. It was an honor to sing with her." Fans got their initial listen to the project with the debut single, the group's first release on Big Machine Records, their new label home.
"'Why Wait' is one of the coolest tunes I've heard in a long while," says Joe Don. "I'll never forget sitting in that little studio in Santa Barbara and hearing it for the first time. Instantly we new it was a Rascal Flatts song and by the day's end we had ourselves an extremely magical track going. I love it!"
The laid-back California outpost was chosen as a creative counterpoint to Music City. "We cut half the album in Nashville and half in Santa Barbara," says Gary. "We just wanted to change it up some and enjoy the beautiful weather in California. It gave us a new spark for sure."
"It as a nice departure from the norm for us," adds Joe Don. "We recorded in a funky little studio with some amazing L.A. musicians and created some great magic together. I really think you can feel some of the energy on a lot of these tracks."
"Overall," says Jay, "this is an album about fun, growth and change. We have been at a very important crossroads this year with our ten-year mark, so I think we wanted to prove to ourselves that we could still grow and surprise ourselves and stretch."
The fact that they were able to do so reflects the magic they have always found in their approach to music and the respect with which they view their mission and each other. Their sound took root in the late 1990s, when Jay and Joe Don were band mates working with Chely Wright and Jay and Gary were playing a separate gig in downtown Nashville. When their guitar player was unable to make it one night, Jay asked Joe Don to sit in.
"We knew right away we had something special," says Jay, "even if we were the only ones who ever got to hear it!"
"I truly feel like every time the three of us lock into a chorus," adds Gary, "God's hand is in it. I feel blessed to share the stage with Jay and Joe Don and their crazy talent. They both inspire me."
"Gary is one of the greatest and most unique singers of our time," says Joe Don, returning the compliment. "I've always felt blessed that we have a lead singer who, like a quarterback, takes charge of the stage and leads us into victory night after night!" The three honed their sound with club work, cut some demos and by year's end had been signed to Lyric Street Records, where they flourished and took off on that magical decade of hits and sold-out shows. Along the way, their "Bless The Broken Road" was Grammy nominated for Country Song of the Year and Vocal Performance, they became 2006's top-selling physical and digital artist in all genres, scored four #1 country albums and three #1's overall, and hit the Top 10 Billboard pop singles chart twice, among many other milestones.
"There's never been a method to our madness," says Joe Don. "We just cut the best songs we can, and through the years we get better at what we do." When Lyric Street closed its doors, they chose Big Machine as their new label home. "We have found an amazing business partner with [label head] Scott Borchetta and the entire Big Machine family," says Gary. "They get us and we get them on every level. It feels like the right place at the right time."
Committed to giving back, they are known for their charitable work, which includes raising three million dollars for the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville.
"That," says Jay, "is definitely the thing I'm most proud of."
This year sees them back on the road with their "Nothing Like This Tour," which Jay says, "is sort of a Rascal Flatts history lesson."
"As a kid," says Gary, "you stand in front of your mirror and only dream about being able to sell out arenas and stadiums. And to be able to play a place like Wrigley Field and sell it out, you can't even dream that big. The feeling is awesome."
"Without a doubt we've been blessed to have received our fair share of awards and recognitions in this business," adds Joe Don. "But above all, getting to make music that matters, that affects people emotionally and spiritually, is the greatest thing we could ever accomplish."
Never content to rest on their laurels, they are eagerly looking forward. "The goal," adds Gary," is to continue to make amazing music together for at least the next ten years, because we honestly feel like we're just getting started." "And as long as we stay true to the music and each other," adds Jay, "everything else will fall into place."
Its a voice that needs no introduction. Darius Ruckers soulful, rich baritone instantly resonates as a comforting companion in this journey we call life. On LEARN TO LIVE, his first project for Capitol Records Nashville, Rucker has created a work that is steeped in the country traditions of meaningful lyrics and resonant melodies, yet sounds completely modern.
Brian Setzer (born April 10, 1959) is an American guitarist, singer and songwriter. He first found widespread success in the early 1980s with the 1950s-style rockabilly revival group Stray Cats, and revitalized his career in the late 1990s with his Swing revival band, The Brian Setzer Orchestra.
Atlanta | Country
To hear Jennifer Nettles tell it, it’s a brand new day in Sugarland. Despite winning multiple Grammy, CMA and ACM awards—and selling more than 8 million records—the country-music duo of Nettles and Kristian Bush is embracing a creative rebirth, a musical awakening that permeates their adventurous fourth album, The Incredible Machine.
“We are in a place of discovery,” Jennifer says. “It is the essence of who we are as people in this band. There is never a moment where we think, ’This is good enough.’ There’s always a place for growth.”
A growth that Kristian says has been encouraged by their fans, their record label, and, most importantly, by the genre-bending, all-are-welcome country-music industry. “It’s as if the industry and the culture have singled out the biggest risks we’ve taken on a record, a song like ’Stay’ for example, and celebrated those,” he says gratefully. “They’ve embraced us at those times. We’ve tried to learn from that and this is what we’ve made.”
And what they’ve created is a dynamic masterwork. Co-written and co-produced in full by Jennifer and Kristian, The Incredible Machine is a soaring album elevated by sky-high choruses, ringing guitars, and pulsing drums that recall the beating of the album’s titular engine, the human heart.
Kristian describes it as a collection of anthems—and there may be no greater understatement. If the duo was searching for the grander side of country on their last record, the double platinum Love on the Inside, they’ve obviously found it on The Incredible Machine. From the fanfare of the album’s opener “All We Are” to Jennifer’s sublime piano-ballad closer “Shine the Light,” this is an album built for stadiums.
“This record is designed to play in very large places and to communicate with a large group of people,” Kristian confirms. “When you have an instrument as powerful and as graceful as Jennifer’s voice, you don’t want to tip-toe in. You really go for it! And those types of songs are often where Jennifer and I intersect musically.”
In fact, the pair found shared inspiration in the iconic music and films of the 1980s, their growing-up years. “We allowed ourselves to play with our influences,” Jennifer admits. As such, the coming-of-age movies by director John Hughes and songs by Blondie, Peter Gabriel, The Pretenders and even The Clash all helped fire up the Machine. “When we were writing, we asked what if John Hughes were making movies now.... Who would be on the soundtrack?” Kristian says, going on to connect the dots between rebellious country and rebellious rock. “If you dig far enough you’re going to see that The Clash and Johnny Cash had a lot in common. I like to live right where those guys meet.”
In a song like the joyous “Find the Beat Again,” for instance, Jennifer reminds the heavy-hearted among us that nothing lasts forever, while Kristian’s siren-like guitar sound—a technique he adapted from The Clash, he says—pushes the song toward its climax.
Or the call-to-arms “Stand Up,” in which the band exhorts listeners to “use your voice.” A tale of personal empowerment, the track is almost heroic in its message. It’s also one of two songs on the album to showcase Kristian’s voice. “I don’t know how many people have really ever heard me sing before,” he says of his lead verse. “For fans of the band, it’s like a whole new layer is peeled back.”
“All We Are” is equally triumphant. A rallying cry of sorts, it culminates in a mass of melodies folding upon one another. The result is breathtaking, a musical equation so intricate that it solidifies the duo’s ability to write complex fare as well as breezy, winking tunes like first single “Stuck like Glue.”
“We write songs for different reasons. There are some songs that we want to change your life and there are some that we just want to change your day. That’s what ’Stuck like Glue’ is,” Jennifer laughs. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously, and that’s what fans love.”
They also flock to Jennifer’s knack for finding the voice of everywoman—or even everyman. One of Sugarland’s many gifts is their ability to write lyrics that transcend gender, like in their 2004 breakout hit “Baby Girl.” On The Incredible Machine, the proof is in the acoustic “Little Miss,” a profile of a woman who tries to handle everything, all by herself. “I saw my mom as that person. I see pieces of it in my own daughter. Jennifer is certainly one of those women,” Kristian says.
Aside from the powerhouse rocker “Wide Open,” written specifically for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, “Little Miss” is one of the record’s earliest penned tracks. “We were at a festival over a year ago and I was on the bus doing my makeup while Kristian was warming up,” recalls Jennifer. “I was wearing a checkered dress and he started playing this lick and singing, ’Little Miss checkered dress.’ I popped my head out and sang, ’Little Miss one big mess!’ The way that song was discovered was fun and really beautiful.”
And the band is confident that fans, old and new alike, will have a similar experience as they discover the gears and cogs of The Incredible Machine—a country record, a pop record, an anthem record, a ballad record, but above all, an authentic record.
“It’s just the two of us,” says Kristian. “In the story of who we are, this album is more us than we’ve ever been.”
Jennifer agrees and says the band’s rebirth is best summed up in the gentle, searching words of the album’s title track: Feels like I’m flying, wings made of light/brand new and shinin’, like a shot rung out through the night.
“That’s a wonderful metaphor and image for this newly emerging creature that Sugarland is right now, with these vulnerable but beautiful wings. The Incredible Machine is definitely us, but at the same time, there is something very precious and new,” she says. “And we want to show it to the world!”
2013 so far has been another spectacular year for Urban, who has already celebrated the success of a sold-out Australian Arena tour and received his first Golden Globe Award nomination for his song “For You”, his initial foray writing specifically for a motion picture. A performance with the Rolling Stones and at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Concerts, combined with Urban’s 4th annual “All 4 The Hall Benefit Concert” performing alongside “Rebels and Renegades” Willie Nelson, Kid Rock, Jason Aldean, Kris Kristofferson, Vince Gill, Tim McGraw and Eric Church, amongst others, has further solidified the respect that Urban has received as a musician and player.
In the Spring Keith released his first single in nearly two years, “Little Bit of Everything”, and wrapped Season 12 of FOX’s American Idol, on which he served as a judge.
In July, Urban launched the first outdoor Summer tour of his career, “Light The Fuse Tour 2013”, with Little Big Town and special guest Dustin Lynch. The tour moved into Arenas in October and will continue through December 2013. Urban’s eighth studio album is expected for release this Fall.
In 2001, the Country Music Association honored Keith Urban with its Horizon Award, designating him a talented artist with a bright future. He is the first Horizon Award winner in history to go on to win the CMA’s Male Vocalist of the Year, a title he’s captured three times, and the coveted Entertainer of the Year. More than 15 million albums later, Keith is a four-time GRAMMY® Award winner who has also won a People’s Choice and American Music Award. He’s won five Academy of Country Music Awards, had 14 No. 1’s, including 28 Top 5 hits, and has had five consecutive platinum or multi-platinum albums. In 2012 he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry.
Urban’s reputation as a songwriter, musician, vocalist and virtuoso guitarist is no more evident than when he is onstage. His electrifying concerts have played to sold-out venues from Australia to Germany, England to Canada and the United States. In fact, 2009’s Escape Together World Tour, as well as 2007’s Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy World Tour, were both, one of the top grossing tours for their respective years. As one journalist put it, “Urban is one of the best reasons in the world to attend a live concert.”