Better Than: This divided by two.
Let it go into record that for once, on the night of May 7 in the year 2013, Manhattan had too many good country—country referring to popular country, as imported from Nashville—shows to attend, overlapping bookings that could have both been the highlight of their month. Here in the Village, about a radio edit’s walk from Voice headquarters, the evening started at Joe’s Pub, where the recently remodeled venue was hosting the ninth anniversary of their Songwriter’s Series, a semi-regular event featuring seven dollar drafts and performances by some of the genre’s best behind the scenes talent.
Tonight, host Bob DiPiero (whose top tens begin with the Oak Ridge Boys’ 1983 “American Made” and extend through Easton Corbin’s recent “Lovin’ You is Fun”) recruited Phil Vassar (Tim McGraw’s “My Next Thirty Years,” for starters) and Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark (two-thirds of the team behind Miranda Lambert’s current number one) to celebrate the occasion. Though least recognizable to this New York City crowd, it was surely Clark who will be best remembered: Between opening with that Lambert hit and closing with “Better Dig Two,” a Band Perry chart-topper that she and McAnally helped pen, the Washington native played only originals, all of which remain free to download over at her Soundcloud. Where “Stripes,” a revenge song that changes course when its narrator realizes she wouldn’t look good in prison clothes, had the small venue laughing throughout, “Hold My Hand” rendered it completely still.
Though she spoke less than the boys, she was more confident. Relating a backstage discussion in which McAnally suggested she say the title of the Lambert song rather than jumping right in, she told us her reply (“It doesn’t matter if I say it or not, they’re gonna scream when I start singing it”) and gave us room to prove her right.
Surely no one onstage would take offense to my claim that Clark had the best voice of the bunch, the kind that should be singing on more than just demos. One stool away, her frequent songwriting partner had a fine voice himself—his take on Kenny Chesney’s “Somewhere with You” was ideal, catching the desperation that the world’s most inescapable beach bum seems incapable of—but even he had to laugh while attempting to hit Hillary Scott’s half of Lady Antebellum’s “Downtown.”
Slightly uptown, however, anyone with the proper connections or bone structure could make their way past the bouncer at the McKittrick Hotel and listen to Scott’s own take on the song. Unable to pull myself away until after Clark and co. wrapped things up at Joe’s, I caught a cab and caught the last few songs of the band’s album release show. “Lady Antebellum?” asked the elevator operator. “I am not a fan of her, but she is a fan of me.” Apparently no one had had the heart to explain to him the make up of the group. He suggested I check out the roof bar, and I found myself unable to break the news.
Inside, the trio had a few songs left to play, and “We Owned the Night” and “Need You Know” were both predictably wonderful. I missed “Downtown” but spent a moment trying to figure out how long ago it was that cool New Yorkers earnestly talked about heading downtown to get their kicks. “Anything goes here, this is New York City,” said frontman Dave Haywood. Lady AnteBloomberg?
In the mean time, the good, somewhat patronizing people at McKittrick began to play tracks off Golden, the new album we were sort of here to celebrate. The band’s best yet, the record is full of songs that document the eventual, inevitable fall-out that takes place weeks, months, or even decades after the magical prom night that “We Own the Night” seems to depict. The titles of second single “Goodbye Town” and potential third single “Nothin’ Like the First Time” speak for themselves, while “Long Teenage Goodbye” might be the most convincing Taylor Swift song not sung by Taylor Swift.
Closer “Generation Away” is the only curveball, with verse lines like “If I was a summer, I’d wanna be ’69” and “If I was a prison, I’d wanna be Folsom” and a chorus in which the singers long to be remembered the way they remember people like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. If it were a different historical moment, the song would be Jesus Jones’s “Right Here, Right Now,” but in 2013 it’s that song’s opposite, not energized by the present but chasing after both the past and the future. If I hadn’t had enough country music for one night, I would have kept thinking about the implications of this, but instead I decided to give it up and check out that roof.
Random Notebook Dump: According to McAnally, the line about Mary Jane/Mary Kay in Kacey Musgraves “Merry Go ‘Round” (which he helped pen) was inspired by his mother, who accused their neighbors of profiting off one of the two.