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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

What The Hell Happened To Country? Kenny Kens Album Release (It's a Winner!)

What Indeed?
Tired of the watered down, hooky, pop-driven drivel that passes for country music on the radio today?  Hankering for some real, old-school country music sung with passion and flair?  Want songs about love, life and loss instead of beer, barbies and badboys?  Well then, have I got an album for youKenny Kens and his stellar band, the Brown Bottle Boys, just dropped What the Hell Happened to Country? and it's set to blow your mind!

Raised on Ernest Tubb, Carl Smith and Hank Williams (with a little Lefty Frizzell and Johnny Cash thrown in for seasoning) Kenny Kens grew up listening to and playing traditional country music.  Frustrated by the so-called "Pop-Country" and "Bro-Country" dominating the airways, he set out to record an album showcasing what country music is supposed to be.  Surrounded by an all-star cast of musicians including southeast Michigan Legend Mitch Manns, he and his Brown Bottle Boys mash the throttle to the floor and trade guitar and pedal steel licks behind poignant and clever lyrics to deliver an eleven song masterpiece of Classic Country.

Kenny Kens and PBR.  Perfection.
I have to admit, it took an enormous pair to kick off an album with this title, with a hard-driving, banjo-fueled bluegrass barn-burner (featuring Mann's distinctive Scruggs-style banjo pickin').  Ain't Coming Back is as high energy and catchy as they come and, while distinctly different from the other tracks, serves as the perfect appetizer to the ten course dinner to follow.  With so much attention paid to staying true to the fathers of country music, it was somehow appropriate to also acknowledge the role bluegrass played as grandfather to those greats.  Kudo's to guitarist Brian Coogan who tears off a killer acoustic guitar lick in this song, that starts out sounding like a mandolin, works it's way through some telecaster licks and resolves into some string-bending blues.

The Brown Bottle Boys Gettin' It Done!
The remainder of the album is pure, classic country featuring Ken's smooth, soulful lyrics--dirty and grit-filled on some songs, plaintive and wailing on others.  Kenny can sound like Hank, or Merle or Travis--while somehow always sounding like himself.  He also stays pretty true to the classic country sound both in is vocals, and in his songwriting.  While Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson are making names by themselves by taking classic country and stretching it into new horizons, Kens has chosen to explore the tradition, coloring and nuancing his tone to fit the lyrics.  Backed by a stripped down drum-kit courtesy of Brian Ferriby and some simple, yet elegant bass lines from Steve Wyse (a larger than life character both musically and in person), the rhythm section supports the lyrics with a driving groove.  Solo instrumental work on the album is specacular with guitar work from Coogan, Manns and Dave Beddington.  Want to hear what country guitar should sound like?  Just listen to any of the songs on this album.  And wait!  There's more! What country album doesn't have some killer pedal-steel guitar work?  Billy Cole's slide work on this project definitely helps define that old-school country sound.

And Then THIS Happened to Country Music
Kenny wrote most of the songs on the album, and they're all keepers, combining great storytelling, with  classic country hooks and some clever surprises.  The lyrics are raw and from the heart--and sung with absolute abandon.  She Might Outlive Me (a traditional country shuffle written by Kenny's Uncle Ronnie Murray) sounds like it should be coming out a 1940s living room radio on a Friday night.  What the Hell Happened to Country? is a straightforward ode to oldschool and takes some good-natured jabs at the radio country-pop stars of today. The guitar line in I'll Have a Drink Then I'll Cry is worth the price of the entire album, and the texas-swing pedal steel has that slightly Hawaiian sound of the early days of country music. The eminently danceable Learning How to Forget should be mandatory listening for every country drummer and bass player out there.  Very sparse but still keeps thing moving along at a brisk pace.  Somehow, I can hear Patsy Cline singing Kiss Me Before You Tell Me Goodbye.  The good-time blues number I'll Get Along Without You Just Fine will have you tapping your toes and shouting "Amen! Brother"...a true anthem to guys done wrong by the women in their lives.   Kens can also get down and lonesome, as evidenced on the unrequited love ballad I Just Need to be Loved by You.  There's a little Dwight Yoakam in the swingy honky-tonk party-ballad Steppin' Out--and it's as good-time a song as you'll find.  My favorite is probably Brown Bottle Flu, an ode to those days we realize that we don't bounce back from those late night parties like we did in our 20s.  The Johnny Paycheck number Pardon Me I've Got Someone to Kill is an earwig of the worst kind...the hook will get in your brain and have you humming along all day.

Just a quick review that hardly does justice to this incredible album.  I'm sure this is destined to spend some serious time in my car's CD players.  Get yourself a copy (or digital download) from CDBaby.com (worth it just for the shipping notification).  Or better yet...go see the band play, shake a howdy afterwards and thank them for bringing back country music (and buy a copy direct from them).