ALBUM REVIEW: Steve Moakler – ‘Blue Jeans’

LifeInASong_UK

It feels somewhat ironic, when I type the name Steve Moakler into a word document, that I get the familiar red line suggesting a spell check on his surname. His profile is relatively low, despite releasing music that should be hugely embraced.

Even as recently as last summer, he was playing in a “bunch of back yards and farms”, promoting his wife’s hand-made jewellery business and his own music. In stating this, I’m not attempting to cast negativity upon Steve’s career and achievements. Quite the opposite. I am genuinely baffled as to why someone who is now onto his 6th album, and has his albums favourably reviewed by Rolling Stone and Billboard, is so under-the-radar.

We had the opportunity of sitting down with Steve two months ago when Dan interviewed him in Nashville around the time of the CMA Awards. Check out the interview on the site. Dan was able to converse with him off-camera about the possibility of him coming across to perform for us here in the UK. He was genuinely amazed that anyone here would be interested in his music and was intrigued that we could afford him a new audience.

He was intent upon making enquiries to “make it happen”, but to date we have heard no whispers that this is being pursued. A great pity. He’s just announced that his wife Gracie is due to give birth to their second child in the summer of 2020, so I guess he has other priorities right now!

‘Blue Jeans’ is his 5th studio album with Creative Nation Music. It’s a follow-up to his ‘critically acclaimed’ 2018 album ‘Born Ready’. Creative Nation is a music publishing and management company founded by Luke Laird and his wife, Beth. Luke Laird has been heavily involved in Moakler’s career to date.

As a career influence and collaborator, you could do a lot worse than Luke Laird. This is the guy who wrote ‘Space Cowboy’ and ‘Pageant Material’ for Kacey,  ‘American Kids’ for Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw’s ‘Diamond Rings and Old Barstools’. His label has Natalie Hemby, Lori McKenna and Barry Dean on the roster. A songwriter’s dream.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that ‘Blue Jeans’ boasts strong, lyrically-inspiring songs and innovative production techniques. Laird maybe the songwriter’s songwriter, but he also produced two Grammy-nominated albums by Kacey Musgraves, and his influence is all over this record.

The official release date for the album was 17th January 2020, but this actually represents only the third ‘pocket’ of songs. Pocket one was released on 4th October last year, and the second pocket was released on 6th November.

An unusual way of releasing an album, and when asked by Dan in our interview, he stated that it was an experiment that he could try, working for an independent label. It’s understandable why the idea was formed and actioned. It’s a way of maintaining the interest in an artist for a number of months, rather than having the sole emphasis on the actual album release date, but it also waters down the product.

Sadly, I’m old enough to remember the excitement generated by the build up to an album release. There may have been one or occasionally two singles before the album was made available, but back in the day we all went to the record store on the day of release and placed the vinyl on the deck to experience the joy of your chosen favourites output.

That being said, the bottom line is not the method of delivery, but what is actually being delivered.

Steve also told us that for this project he brought in Nick Lobel, a sound engineer who has worked with artists with a pop-country heritage. This is evident in some aspects of the production, but this is not a pop-country album. There is no layering on the vocals, no drops in the chorus, no click tracks or drum machines. This is an album from a guy who tells stories.

In the opener and title track, ‘Blue Jeans’, he describes his reflective outlook, “breaking in this life like a pair of blue jeans”. He won’t be expecting any exposure on country radio, but there are numerous examples across this project where you find yourself wondering why.

The upside of reviewing an album that has a staggered release is the benefit of familiarity, having lived with a number of these songs for a couple of months. ‘One On The Way’ was written about the birth of his son and the emotions surrounding the experience, and anticipation of being a father for the first time – “One on the way means a whole lot different thing these days”.  I’ve listened to this song more times than I can remember, and still marvel at the way songwriters can weave their magic into a subject that us mere mortals often treat almost flippantly.

The mark of an album’s quality is the inability to select and remain consistent about your favourite track. There are so many contenders here.

‘How Have We Never’ is a great song. It deals with the fact that some friends have never become more than friends. If I was demonstrating why we were so hooked on country music to non-believers who consider that our music consists of references to dirt roads and corn fields, I would play them this song. Or maybe I would play them ‘One On The Way’, or ‘The Picture’, or perhaps anything else on this album.

Steve Moakler has been writing songs and playing guitar since he was 14, and left Pittsburgh when he was 16 to pursue a music career by accepting a scholarship at Belmont University in Nashville. He’s achieved success as a songwriter, most notably as the co-writer of ‘Riser’ for Dierks Bentley, but fame has eluded him so far in his own career as a singer-songwriter.

As he said previously, “great songs do most of the work for you”. If his legacy is his songs, then so be it. Albums like this are why we all dedicate so much of our free time to this genre. But despite the faultless song writing, instrumentation and production, I would hazard a guess that this album won’t cause much of a ripple in the great pond that is mainstream country music.

It may be January, and there are lots of opportunities for the picture to change, but it’s going to have to be a damn good album to push this one off top spot in our 2020 albums list. Check this guy out. You won’t regret it.

Graham Wharton

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