First Country is a compilation of the best new country songs, videos and albums that dropped this week.

Hardy, A Rock

Hardy, who’s co-written hits for Florida Georgia Line and Blake Shelton among others, releases one of the most self-assured full-length debut albums in years. Last year’s polarizing “Rednecker” showed no hint of Hardy’s songwriting ability (though Shelton’s “God’s Country” certainly did.). His lyrics and word play are especially strong on the title track, which uses many different meanings for the word rock while weaving together a story. Current Top 20 hit, “One Beer “ (featuring Lauren Alaina and Devin Dawson), looks at the sunny side of imbibing too much, while on “Boots,” he’s so sure he’s wrecked a relationship that he sleeps in his boots, correctly knowing that as soon as he wakes up, his girlfriend is showing him the door. In one of the album’s most moving tracks, “Give Heaven Some Hell,” he sings to a departed friend. To Hardy’s credit, he can convincingly sing “Unapologetically Country as Hell” on an album that owes as much to AC/DC as George Jones.

Lauren Alaina, Getting Over Him

Break-ups are hard for the heart and soul, but they certainly can inspire great music. Such is the case with Alaina’s new EP, which is informed by the demise of her two most recent relationships. Alaina, who co-wrote all six tracks and is in great vocal form, veers from the sassy swagger of “Bar Back,” where she divides up who gets rights to their old haunts, to jumping back in on the title track (a pitch perfect duet with her pal Jon Pardi). But the real jewel here is EP closer, “What Do You Think Of” (a duet with Lukas Graham frontman Lukas Forchhammer). The searing ballad is a cross-format smash just waiting to happen.

Carly Pearce, “Next Girl”

Like Alaina, Pearce is spinning her split–in this case with fellow artist Michael Ray–into potential radio gold. This uptempo tune, co-written with Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally, who also provided the punchy production, is advice to the next girl her ex turns to. It’s pointed without sounding bitter and Pearce’s winning delivery and the snappy instrumentation recall mid-90s tunes like Patty Loveless’s “I Try to Think About Elvis.” The lyric “you overlook a lot when he looks like that” says it all.

Brett James, Tell The People

James, one of Nashville’s most acclaimed songwriters, having penned such hits as “Jesus Take the Wheel,” “Drugs or Jesus” and “I Hold On,” returns to his roots as an artist with this six-song EP full of grit, heart and blue-eyed soul. “Tell The People” is a mid-tempo rocker reminding people to let the ones you love know your feelings (a particularly trenchant message during a pandemic). “Don’t Leave Me Like You Found Me” is a treatise on the healing power of love. “Right On Time” and “Just Tell Me” sound like they could have been recorded in Muscle Shoals in the ‘60s and that’s high praise.

Tyler Rich, 2000 Miles

Fans will be familiar with previously released tracks “Leave Her Wild,”“The Difference” and “Rather Be Us,”on the California native’s set which takes its name from the distance between Nashville and Los Angeles (he splits his time between the two), but will be pleased that some of the album’s strongest tunes are still ripe for discovery, including “11:11,” which would fit perfectly on a Keith Urban album or closer “Adrenaline,” an ode to a lover who brings him back to life. Rich reinvents Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” as an acoustic number with a bit of a samba beat. It works far better than one would expect.

Southerland, “Thing Is”

Duo  Matt Chase and Chris Rogers, newly signed to River House Artists/Sony Music Nashville, introduce themselves via “Thing Is,” a twangy, toe-tapping ode to a woman who has it, whatever that “thing is.” Fun and lighthearted and perfect for the waning days of summer.

India Ramey, Shallow Graves

Is there a better line that sums up this year than this? “Everytime I read the news/oh, it’s clear we’re all screwed.” So sings Ramey on “Up to No Good.” It’s just one of the winners on this exhilarating set from the Nashville singer/songwriter. Her voice is as tart as her lyrics: She sings, “He found Jesus in prison/he’s got the t-shirt to prove it” on “Keep Hope Alive.”
The rollicking set recalls everyone from Tammy Wynette to Exene Cervenka and Wanda Jackson. There are no sacred cows in Ramey’s world, including Trump, whom she eviscerates (but never names) on tremolo-laden “King of the Ashes.”

Brit Taylor, “Back in the Fire”

From The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach‘s seemingly endlessly fertile music factory emerges Brit Taylor with this semi-autobiographical tale of jumping back into the romantic fire even though the burns from the last entanglement haven’t healed. The song, co-written by Taylor, Auerbach and Pat McLaughlin, shines, as does Taylor’s unassuming delivery, but it is Dave Brainard’s sweeping production and its sultry Bobbie Gentry vibe that helps make the song so memorable…even with no mention of the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Carolina Story, “Dandelion”

Carolina Story, aka Ben and Emily Roberts, recalls The Civil Wars with their harmonies and two-pronged vocal attack, but with a good does of ’70s singer/songwriter influence thrown in. Even when the topics get tough, including mental illnesses, there’s a gentleness to the songs here that never veers into the soppy on this low-key effort. Strong throughout, with standout tracks including “See You When I See You,” featuring Emily as a fed-up lover, and the dreamy “Daylight.”


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