There are several higher profile album releases this week and that lends for a fun day of listening to new music. There’s the first Alabama studio album in 14 years, Diamond Rio’s first all-new country album in 13 years (They’ve released Christmas, Greatest Hits, Christian music and Live albums in that time), Benton Blount’s first album (released as his third) is out from the original label to capitalize on the America Got Talent runner-up’s ‘fame’ while we also get Clare Dunn’s debut, an EP from Redneck Social Club, Sixpence None The Richer lead vocalist Leigh Nash, vocal band Home Free’s latest album, Texas-based Turnpike Troubadours and more.
Home Free - Country Evolution (Columbia Records)
Mixing in original tracks like “Summer In The Country” and “Good Ol’ Country Harmony” with tributes to Charlie Daniels, Dolly Parton and Alabama along the way, Home Free’s latest album Country Evolution showcases a band that should be getting more national attention from radio. Their fun, expansive “banduet” with The Oak Ridge Boys on “Elvira” is a clear highlight as is their take on the Eagles classic “Seven Bridges Road” (that song was made for country harmony). The Deluxe Edition of the album includes the “Alabama Sampler” and “Seven Bridges Road” along with closer “Serenity.” The band works through a slick cover of “Honey, I’m Good” and their take of Sam Hunt’s “House Party” is timely as well. This record showcases the band’s tight harmonies and their growth into a country music powerhouse.
Leigh Nash - “The State I’m In” (One Son Records/Thirty Tigers)
The talented lead vocalist from Christian Pop band Sixpence Non The Richer takes on traditional country and torch balladry on the fantastic The State I’m In. Working with Brendan Benson (The Raconteurs) in the producer’s chair, Nash offers up twelve original songs written with the likes of Benson, Emily West, Jesse Hall, Stephen Wilson and Gerry House. “Cruel Heart” feels like something straight out of a jukebox of a dusty saloon with a distinct Patsy Cline-like vibe, while songs like “Mountain” and “Somebody’s Yesterday” feel like they could have been on a Mavericks record. The title track “The State I’m In” is a shuffling’ two-stepper with fiddles and steel guitars galore. This isn’t a mainstream record but Nash should find a willing group of fans who like her strong, unique voice and original country songs that showcase a singer who belongs in country music more than most of the mainstream stars who started in the genre.
Alabama - Southern Drawl (TGA Enterprises/BMG Rights Management)
The iconic band returns with their first new album in 14 years. Featuring a baker’s dozen tracks, Southern Drawl is mostly written by the band with 8 of the 13 songs coming from the pen of the band and the others coming from writers like Tony Lane, Paul Overstreet, Rivers Rutherford and Heath Owen, Randy’s son. For the most part the album will please the band’s longtime fans, especially with their ballads like “Wasn’t Through Loving You Yet,” “This Isn’t Just A Song” and “One On One,” (a song Owen recorded for his solo album a few years back). The song “American Farmer” is a perfect anthem for the hard working food suppliers of America (and it could probably be a hit on radio if given a shot). Jeff Cook sings the lead vocals on “No Bad Days” while Teddy Gentry takes the lead vocals on the prog rocker “It’s About Time.” Closer “I Wanna Be There” is about as classic an Alabama song you can have in 2015 and will likely be a fan favorite in concert. Southern Drawl is mostly a strong collection of songs from one of America’s most-iconic bands and for those waiting for it, it’s an album that was worth waiting for.
Turnpike Troubadours - Turnpike Troubadours (Bossier City/Thirty Tigers)
The band which brought the world hits like “Gin, Smoke, Lies” and “Before The Devil Knows We’re Dead” on their last album Goodbye Normal Street are back with their self-titled third album and it’s likely to find fans yearning for fiddles, steel guitars and strong songwriting wishing the band had an even higher profile. Lead singer and chief songwriter Evan Felker is a strong singer and writer with well thought out portraits of characters of all shades and a gift for some strong melody. Standouts here include “The Mercury,” (a country/rocker in the tradition of Lyle Lovett and The Drive-By Truckers), “Down Here,” a steel guitar laced radio ready tune while “Ringing In The Year” will remind of William Clark Green. “Easton & Main” is one of the best story songs on the disc (or better yet, any song released in 2015 and fans of steel guitar should love its use as the lead instrument here). The Turnpike Troubadours self-titled record is yet another showcase for a band that deserves a larger following than what they currently have as their records are amongst the best ones you could possibly hear from any act in any genre.
Drake White - It Feels Good [LIVE EP] (DOT RECORDS)
The second artist to release singles from Dot Records (after Maddie & Tae), Drake White is another unique act. The EP features four new songs, all recorded from a live show to get the full effect of what Drake White does as an artist. “Story” has a feel not unlike Old Crow Medicine Show and it’s very sing-a-long ready and White’s soulful voice suits the song as well. “Back To Free” is a mood-filled story song/ballad while “Heartbeat” is a percussive radio-ready mid-tempo ballad with a strong lyric and Drake’s first Dot single, “It Feels Good” is as great live as it was when I heard it played on my iPod and Satellite Radio. This is an artist country music needs.
Clare Dunn - Clare Dunn EP (MCA Nashville)
The former indie country singer/songwriter/guitarist has issued her first EP and if you’ve liked rising hit “Move On,” you’re gonna really like the four other songs on the EP. There’s a percussive modern country/rock and pop vibe to the songs with “Ferrari” feeling ready for radio after “Move On” and “Tuxedo” being something that could probably be a huge hit too. There’s certainly a mainstream pop feel to “Tuxedo” but that could be said about Sam Hunt too. “Old Hat” is a pretty, soul-filled ballad while “Cowboy Side Of You” was her first hit on radio and positioned Clare for her record deal with MCA.
Diamond Rio - I Made It (Rio Hot Records)
The award-winning Grand Ole Opry members return with their first all-new country album since 2002 and for anyone who has missed the band, well, you’re in for a treat with the diverse collection of eleven new tunes. Songs from A list writers like Chris Stapleton, Ashley Gorley, Craig Wiseman, Michael Dulaney, Jeffrey Steele, Ben Haylsip and Jason Sellers prove that Diamond Rio still knows how to select songs while their title track, “I Made It” was co-written by the band’s guitarist Jimmy Olander and along with being a romantic song, it can also serve as a tribute to their fans as well for sticking along with the band for the past two decades-plus. “I Love This Song” is a barn burnin’ foot stomper that fits right in with their history of uptempo tunes but it’s the powerful songs like “I Can’t Think of Anything But You,” “Finding’ My Way Back Home” and “I’ll Wait For You” that are among the best songs here. “Beckett’s Back Forty Acres” is a strong story song while “Walking By Beauty” showcases the band’s musicality and is accented by Joshua Bell’s beautiful violin playing. Welcome back Diamond Rio, we’ve missed you.
Mac McAnally - AKA Nobody (Mailboat Records)
For the first time in his career, Mac McAnally has recorded an outside song on one of his albums. That song, “Mississippi You’re On My Mind” is a song from the late, great Jesse Winchester and it serves as a great ode to Mac’s home state. The Seven-time CMA Award winner showcases diverse palate of music throughout AKA Nobody, his first studio album release since 2009’s Down By The River. One of Nashville’s best vocalists and songwriters, McAnally brings his version of Zac Brown Band’s “Last But Not Least” and Jimmy Buffett’s “Coast Of Carolina” to the table along with the swing of “Zanzibar,” the funky Randy Newman-ish “Place Where You Belong,” and the Cajun swagger of “Loser Gumbo. Mac also sings of the “Island Rain” with his co-write with Kenny Chesney but as is usually the case, McAnally’s best songs are his self-pened tunes, songs like the rollicking “Proud To Be Alive” and heartfelt “With A Straight Face,” both songs that showcase as much diversity in Mac’s artistry as the above songs do. “Proud To Be Alive” feels ready to be covered by a top country artist while “With A Straight Face” is a slice of observational poetry about trying to fit in and be somebody you’re not, all to please other people. This, friends, is one of the best releases in 2015.
Benton Blount - Benton Blount (Wide Open Music)
This album was originally set to be released in 2009 when his original label Golden Music closed doors. But with Benton’s success as a runner-up on America’s Got Talent, the remnants of that label, Wide Open Music, have issued the long-shelved album. The 11 track album features “Carolina,” a song that eventually became a #1 hit for the songwriters Parmalee in 2013, while other strong tracks include “Because of You,” the powerful ballads “You Walked In” and “Those Were The Days” while “Remember When” and “Last Forever” are also strong. While this may be a ‘cash grab’ from an old label, Benton does showcase the talent that made him someone worthy of signing to a label in the first place (his own — and better — self-titled, self-released album from 2012 gives further evidence).