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Jon PardiAlbum Review: Jon Pardi’s ‘California Sunrise’

Well known for his blend of traditional and modern country, Jon Pardi effortlessly combines the old with the new for his 12-song sophomore release, California Sunrise.

“I always want to have the traditional country soul while meeting the new standards of country music,” Pardi explains. “As a songwriter, we’re looking for a good story and we’re always looking to push the limits. I love having those lyrics that at first make you think it’s about one thing, but it’s really about something so much more.”

Songs like opening track “Out of Style” exemplify Pardi’s mix of traditional country with a modern day flair as he sings about learning the secrets of songwriting upon moving to Nashville. “Write about the things you know about. If there’s anything that you don’t know about just stick around and you’ll find out before too long,” he sings. A driving drum beat accompanies fiddle, pedal steel and electric guitar throughout the five minute jam.

Pardi teamed up with producer Bart Butler again in the studio and in order to capture the live energy on the album, they recorded each song with a full band.

“I’m a big fan of a live band recording and it was really important for me to get that sound on my record,” Pardi shares. “The heart of this record comes across with a live band. We used seven guys – one band, and there’s something special about that.”

The album itself is easy to envision in the live setting thanks to the seven-piece band. Songs like “Night Shift” include plenty of fiddle and pedal steel while the bass-heavy “Dirt On My Boots” begs to be danced to. Appropriately, dancing is a frequent theme throughout California Sunrise. Current single “Head Over Boots” has Pardi gushing about a girl who he has fallen for while on “Can’t Turn You Down” he finds himself dancing in his bedroom with said girl.

As in life and in country music, there is also some heartbreak. But for Pardi, that heartbreak also happens on the dance floor. On the appropriately titled “Heartache on the Dance Floor,” Pardi sings of a night that has him falling for a girl while she’s shaking her hips but he never catches her name or number. The beat heavy instrumental intro of the song combined with fiddle best showcases Pardi’s ability to meld modern and traditional.

Additional highlights include the emotional “She Ain’t In It” which has Pardi trying to get over an ex. While he’s ready to go out to the bar with friends after a month of sulking by himself, he hopes she isn’t there. The soaring string features and slowed acoustic guitar only add to the hurt.

A standout release, California Sunrise combines Pardi’s love of traditional country with a modern feel thanks to distinct percussion and electric guitar combined with pedal steel and fiddle, leaving the listener satisfied. Closing with the foot-stomping title track, which ends with nearly a minute instrumental jam, Pardi’s staying power is evident.

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Maren MorrisAlbum Review: Maren Morris’ ‘Hero’

Emotions run deep for Maren Morris on her major label debut, Hero. The Texas native co-wrote each of the 11 tracks on the versatile release, all of which showcase her honest songwriting and unique storytelling. Whether she’s letting down a man on the autobiographical “I Wish I Was” or transporting the listener to worship on her breakout single “My Church,” her vocal ability is undeniable.

“I’ve come such a long way from who I was in Texas, who I am as a writer, who I am as a woman today,” Morris said in a press release announcing her new album. “I think the message of this record is self acceptance and awareness, and that to me is heroic.”

Morris is heroic in her candor throughout the album. She says things we’ve all thought at one time or another but perhaps have not been brave enough to put out there ourselves. This can be seen on opening track “Sugar” where she asks a crush to be hers.

“I’m a cup of tea with a touch of cream but something’s missing / So I’m gonna put this nice and sweet / Baby would you be my sugar? Sugar you make my heart race,” she sings. “You’re what I crave, babe what can I say?”

Meanwhile, the tongue-in-cheek “Rich” has Morris singing about a man she just can’t rely on. If she made money from all the lies he has told her over the years, she’d be rich with a “Benz in the driveway, yacht in the water.” It’s a unique take on a relationship that begs the listener to sing along.

Other highlights include her standout single, “My Church.” The song features soulful belts from Morris, who has said that the idea came from the realization that music is her version of church.

“Right after I said it aloud I thought, ‘I should write that down!’ Everyone has that feeling when they are in their car by themselves, listening to music with the windows down. I wanted to capture that in a three minute song.”

Morris says the song embodies everything she represents as an artist and a writer and its success at radio is a testament to her ability as a songwriter and vocalist.

“I Could Use a Love Song” is another brutally honest track that has Morris trying her best not to be jaded about love. While she finds it difficult to remember a time when she’d see a couple and not roll her eyes at them making their relationship work, she remains optimistic about love despite being burned in the past. “I haven’t lost all hope yet,” she sings.

While “80s Mercedes” is a catchy, danceable track that has Morris singing of being a ’90s baby in her ’80s Mercedes, next song “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry” has her calling out a friend who refuses to move on from her terrible boyfriend. “There’s a fine line between an accident and an L-O-S-E-R,” she sings on the comical wakeup call.

It is on “I Wish I Was,” though, that best demonstrates Morris’ staying power. One of the standout tracks on Hero, “I Wish I Was” was co-written with Natalie Hemby and Ryan Hurd and is the most vulnerable song featured on the album. A song that has Morris telling a guy they’re not meant to be, it’s a breakup that is strongly felt.

“I’m not the hero in the story / I’m not the girl that gets the glory / ‘Cause you’re lookin’ for true love and I’m not the one / But I wish, but I wish I was,” she sings.

Songwriting at its best, “I Wish I Was” shows Morris’ ability to relate. It’s the sharing of a universal truth and an all too real human condition that is the heart of country music and Morris’ songwriting throughout Hero exemplifies just this. While Morris may admit that she was not heroic in songs like “I Wish I Was,” the singer’s honesty is what makes Hero such a strong release. Morris’ songwriting skills coupled with her powerful vocals and eclectic music style result in Hero being one of the most unique and enjoyable releases of 2016.

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Keith UrbanAlbum Review: Keith Urban’s ‘Ripcord’

Keith Urban transcends genres on his eighth studio album, Ripcord. The singer has said the 13-track release was his “most exhilarating album to make, both musically and creatively” and it’s easy to see why. Urban worked with several new writers and producers for the release including Jeff Bhasker, busbee, Greg Wells and Nile Rogers as well as frequent collaborators Shane McAnally, Ross Copperman, Dann Huff and Nathan Chapman, allowing him to expand his sound by blending a mixture of inspirations and musical styles. As a result, Ripcord is a remarkably diverse album that pushes boundaries and furthers Urban’s evolution as an artist.

This albums journey began back in January 2015 and took me to a lot of unexplored people and places, Urban said. The end result was the recording and exploring of more songs then Ive ever done before and carving that down to what I felt constituted Ripcord.

The first taste of Ripcord was “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16,” which Urban released last June. The bass heavy track includes heavy drum loops, several time changes and a unique lyric which was just a hint of what was to come from the album. The song swiftly made its way to No. 1 on the country charts, marking Urban’s 19th career chart topper. The sweet ballad, “Break On Me,” followed suit and became another No. 1 for Urban. Meanwhile, nostalgic current single “Wasted Time” is also making its way up the charts thanks to its radio friendly appeal.

While many songs on Ripcord are highlighted with banjo accompaniment like the edgy opening track “Gone Tomorrow,” drum loops are also prevalent throughout Ripcord, allowing the tracks to cross genre lines. “Sun Don’t Let Me Down” which features Pitbull is easy to envision hearing on pop radio with dance floor beats and party anthem flavor thanks to guest raps from Mr. Worldwide himself.

Beat heavy “The Fighter” with Carrie Underwood is the other collaboration on the album and also sounds more like a pop anthem than a country staple. Make no mistake though, Urban is not leaving the country genre as there are plenty of country leaning tracks on Ripcord to satisfy his longtime fans. While the soaring “Gettin’ In the Way,” about a couple unable to pull away from a car makeout session, is not new territory Urban makes the song unique with his memorable vocals and added instrumentation which will likely have the listeners humming along long after the song is over.

Other highlights include the old school “Blue Ain’t Your Color” which is reminiscent of music from the 1950s with slowed instrumental accompaniment, bluesy guitar interludes and Urban’s singing style, and the soaring “Boy Gets a Truck” which follows the span of a relationship from a boy getting a truck as a teen to all of life’s big moments.

While the sexy “Habit of You” and “Your Body” were surely inspired by Urban’s wife, Nicole Kidman, the heartbreaking “That Could Still Be Us” showcases Urban’s ability to emote as he sings of a man remembering a lover who has moved on and the only time he sees her is in his dreams.

Overall a diverse release, Ripcord has much to offer listeners. Whether it’s slick beats, guitar slinging or vivid storytelling, Urban’s eighth effort launches the singer into uncharted territory exemplifying exactly why he is one of the most highly regarded talents within the genre.

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Tim McGrawTim McGraw’s ‘Damn Country Music’

Without a doubt, Tim McGraw has enjoyed one of the most successful careers in Country Music the past two decades. When you’ve been able to maintain a career like he has, the question becomes ‘How does one keep it up?’ After all, McGraw has scored with love songs, honky-tonkers, and even songs such as “Highway Don’t Care” that show how well the singer has handled the passage of time.

For his third disc under the Big Machine umbrella, McGraw comes up with his strongest collection in quite a few years. The interesting thing about Damn Country Music is how the singer pulls it off. With such a title, one might think the album is a move in a more traditional direction. And… to an extent, you would be right to make such an assumption. “Here Tonight,” which kicks off the disc, has a little bit of an Appalachian feel – with its opening notes. The track is also notable for the vocal debut of one Gracie McGraw – daughter of Tim and Faith. The teenager shows herself to have come by her vocal chops naturally. Needless to say, I don’t think it’s the last you’re going to hear from her.

“How I’ll Always Be” struck me as the type of song that Merle Haggard might have recorded – if he had gotten his start in the 1990s. McGraw handles the lyrics – about staying true to one’s self amidst life and culture’s changing seas – effortlessly, giving one of his greatest performances. The title cut does pay tribute to his heritage, but the singer best shows his roots on the masterpiece “Don’t Make Me Feel At Home.” It’s a piece of stone-country that would make a George Jones or Conway Twitty proud, with a slice of Keith Whitley – one of McGraw’s heroes – thrown in for good measure.

But, Tim McGraw has always demonstrated a flair for the contemporary, and there are several tracks on the album that fall under the category musically adventurous. “Losin’ You” is among the best in this vein, along with first single “Top Of The World,” the moody “Want You Back,” which should find favor with radio.

To further illustrate the point that McGraw is not an artist to be pigeon-holed, Damn Country Music closes out with two performances that swing in opposite directions yet are very much enjoyable. “California,” a collaboration with Big & Rich is 3:30 of pure fun – and should make a great video should it be a single, while “Humble and Kind” is a Lori McKenna-written masterpiece – one that wouldn’t have worked for McGraw the Rebel Rouser of 1995, but as a father of three, it works abundantly well now.

Just like a Conway Twitty or George Strait, who wrote the book on how to best evolve as an artist, Tim McGraw has taken a page from that playbook. Damn Country Music doesn’t make a huge artistic statement about the heritage or the future of Country Music, but the artist adheres to the golden rule in Nashville – It’s about the songs… and this collection will add several to that list!

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Vince GillAlbum Spotlight: Vince Gill, ‘Down to My Last Bad Habit’

With Down to My Last Bad Habit, Vince Gill introduces himself to a younger generation of country music fans without sacrificing the lyricism, integrity and compelling blend of styles he’s been known for for decades.
Gill is a Country Music Hall of Famer that, to anyone under 20, is just the guy who cries a lot and used to host that awards show. The format needs great, accessible songs from this 58-year-old like it needed Chris Stapleton‘s Traveller one year ago. At its best, Down to My Last Bad Habit feels as familiar as your favorite pair of jeans — comfortable, good for many occasions and rarely boring. It’s a thing of beauty, but never sexy. Almost never.

The chorus to the opening track (“Reasons for the Tears I Cry”) rings with urgency that’s replicated on songs like the swampy “Make You Feel Real Good” and earnest “I’ll Be Waiting for You,” a collaboration with Cam. This isn’t a driving record. In fact, if you’re feeling sleepy don’t put on this collection of 12, mostly mellow songs unless you’re hoping drift off to sweet dreams.

But not every album needs to hit like Red Bull. Down to My Last Bad Habit is an artist’s record, with eclectic sounds placed just so in an effort to present one long landscape portrait. “Like My Daddy Did” is a sweet love story that would make a great single in ’96, ’06 or ’16. Conversely “One More Mistake I Made” stings the heart with a mournful lyric and distant trumpet crying into the night.

A few like “My Favorite Movie” and “When It’s Love” — placed between “I’ll Be Waiting … ” and the George Jones tribute song “Sad One Comin’ On” — get lost in the emotion, but one could also argue they provide a place to breathe. The industry is going to need to rally for Gill like they did Stapleton to make Down to My Last Bad Habit a huge commercial success, but those that commit will come back often for years to come.

Key Tracks: “Reasons for the Tears I Cry,” “Like My Daddy Did,” “One More Mistake I Made”

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Sam HuntSam Hunt ‘Break Up In A Small Town’ – Single Review

Well folks, Sam Hunt is back with another single. For those of us who were hoping that he’d disappear from the country music genre, this is a huge disappointment. “Break Up In A Small Town” is the 5th single from Hunt’s Montevallo album. The question most people have about this new single is: “Is this finally an actual country song?” The answer is a definite NO. It’s not even close to sounding country. You could start right at the border line of the country music genre, get on a plane and fly for days, get off and onto a train, ride for a few more days, and you’d still be closer to country music than this single is. Now this isn’t exactly surprising, considering who the single is coming from. Sam Hunt has never been close to sounding country, leaving the majority of real country fans wondering why he chose to be in the genre.

“Break Up In A Small Town” is an R&B song, plain and simple. The song opens with Hunt talk-singing like he’s in a rap or R&B song, which I find all the more annoying, even more annoying than Hunt being in the country music genre to begin with. I mean if you’re going to be in a genre, you should at least make some sort of effort to sound country in some way. This single is so blatantly R&B. There’s no way, no matter how much you stretch those country music boundaries, that Hunt or his latest single fits into this genre. Why not just pull a Taylor Swift and make the transition to pop/R&B already? He should have just started out there in the first place.

The single finds the narrator, a guy, lamenting living in a small town after he suffers a break up with his girlfriend and ends up having to constantly run into her and see her getting over him with people he knows. It’s a small town, so everyone knows everyone. He clearly still has feelings for the young woman, but she’s moved on. He laments that, “There’s only so many streets/ So many lights/ I swear I can’t even leave my house” and concludes that “guess that’s just how it goes/ When you break up in a small town”. Lyrically, the song isn’t awful, it’s certainly better (again lyrically) than some of the so called “songs” on radio right now. That being said, the vocals and production ruin the single’s chances of being country.

Now, as much as it makes me want to choke on my own words, I have to admit that this single isn’t actually a bad song… give me a minute to recover from that sentence… No, it’s not a bad song at all, it’s a good R&B song. The only thing that makes it bad is the fact that it’s in the wrong genre and being played on the wrong stations. I’d be able to swallow this song a little easier if it weren’t for the fact that it’s being marketed as a country song.

I admit to having a lot of animosity towards Hunt’s music, and most of mainstream country in general (I’m looking at you Florida Georgia Line, Thomas Rhett, and Luke Bryan). What these artists are doing to country music is an extremely hard pill to swallow, and one that I flat out refuse to swallow without a fight! Country just doesn’t sound country anymore, and we have Sam Hunt to thank for that, as he just about single handedly ushered in the newest R&B trend that is plaguing country radio. You used to be able to turn on the radio and know immediately that you were listening to a country music station, nowadays you turn on the radio and you have no clue what genre you’re listening to… but I suppose that’s a rant for another day…

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