Despite thinking that Patsy Cline recorded some of the greatest songs of the twentieth century, I must admit that I’ve never been much of a country music fan. Sure, I’ve been to a few concerts with friends and nearly fell asleep during one given by Mary Chapin Carpenter which seemed to suffer from not a wardrobe malfunction–Carpenter isn’t Janet Jackson after all– but a speaker malfunction as one could’ve heard a pin drop. Likewise, I'll confess to loving some of the late 90’s albums by Shania Twain and Faith Hill but I could probably count the number of albums in the genre I own on a single hand.
And while this being said, it may seem at first like an odd decision to volunteer to critique something in the genre, I remain a completely open minded music lover who will listen to anything once and felt that my naiveté and ignorance would only benefit in offering readers an honest and unbiased take. Additionally, the fact that the country album I selected was released as the debut disc of Julianne Hough– one of my very favorite professionals on ABC’s Emmy award nominated smash Dancing With the Stars (DWTS)– made it all the more enticing to take a break from the admittedly melancholic and introspective genre of alt/indie and instead rock some denim jeans and GM vehicles for a few days.
As DWTS’ youngest and most giftedly diverse choreographer and performer, Julianne Hough has led two of her partners to victory—Apolo Anton Ohno and Helio Castroneves—yet she admitted to First Magazine (9/1/08) that “country music has always been my number one priority.” While dancing and acting came first after she studied abroad in England winning national competitions in her early teens and playing a small role as a schoolgirl in the first Harry Potter film (developing an unrequited crush on Daniel Radcliffe in the process as she tells First), ultimately she left a burgeoning career overseas to return home to Utah. The decision, Hough reveals, came chiefly from her passion for music as she shared in her Mercury Nashville Records biography that if she had stayed in London, she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to sing. And while others were skeptical– even bluntly telling her she wouldn’t make it as a musician– she eventually perfected her skills at a Las Vegas performing arts school (First). And while one wouldn’t guess from the sunny smile and upbeat persona offered on ABC's hit show, Hough admits that although, “I was young… it was still scary to start over,” (First).
Not too many teenagers have to worry about starting over or transitioning from one career to the next but after being thrust into the spotlight due to her undeniable talent for dance and astronomical success on DWTS, she realized she wanted to follow through on the promise she’d made at the age of eight, when she “set a goal… [to] be a country singer by… 19,” (First).
And sure enough, that she did, first by getting her feet wet with the aptly-named charity single “Will You Dance With Me?” to benefit Kansas tornado victims for the American Red Cross which Hough told Mercury Nashville, peaked at #8 on [iTunes’] country charts despite never being released to radio.” And following up the success of that song with a self-titled debut album of eleven tracks which showcase the dancer’s surprising and awe-inspiring range as a singer in her own right, Julianne Hough has been climbing the country charts ever since the album’s bright, up-tempo and irresistibly catchy first track, “That Song In My Head,” was released as the first single and video (which you can see below).
While beginning an album with such an infectious toe-tapper that’s more rocking country than twangy country (following in the footsteps of what Mercury states are Hough’s biggest influences– Shania Twain and McEntire), would ordinarily be risky in overpowering the rest of the songs, her second track has far more sing-along repeat potential. In “You, You, You,” which benefits from intense rhymes about the crazily careless power of young love, the melody and Hough’s voice are punctuated with drums that drive the lyrics home. And given its addictive hook which gets you mouthing along after only the first chorus, you know it will be the track that will get as much—if not more—play than Hough’s opener.
Although she shows a sensual and playfully sexy side that initially seems a bit strange given her strong religious background in “Hide Your Matches,” it’s a revealing song that highlights her voice without the aid of an overwhelming pop sounding band like the first two ditties. This time Hough melts easily into the character of a woman so ignited by her lover that she warns she “could catch just like a candle,” “glow just like an amber” or “spark like thin paper.”
While admittedly it’s far more rock-heavy than most country albums, traditional country enthusiasts will find much to admire as well as Hough, benefited by tremendous songwriters throughout the album, launches into subtly message laced story songs. Additionally some are filled with humor and irony that weave a great yarn, proof that it's the thing that the country genre excels at better than any other musical genre. Such is the case in the possibly “Bobby McGee” inspired “Jimmy Ray McGee,” as Hough sings about refusing to give into her town’s horny first-string quarterback and instead attended prom “on another boy’s arm,” before revealing that she’d “Heard he [Jimmy] made someone else a mom/Disappeared from our hometown/Another daddy out running around.” And while it’s easy to want to cynically label a song like this a forced sermon, it’s a story that’s echoed throughout our country and I don’t think you would have to ask too many women if they’ve heard something similar or been in those shoes themselves.
Likewise, Hough’s admirable girl power continues in full force in the humorous yet wise “Hello,” warning about girls who routinely allow themselves to be picked up by losers who are only differentiated from one another through “the face and the name.” Wishing that she was getting her message “through your fairytale head,” she warns her friend to “wake up and smell his cheap cologne,” although avoids the easy way out of only blaming the men with brilliant follow up lyrics of, “If you’re gonna keep fishing in a pool of shallow water/You can’t give the fish all the blame.” She further drives her point home in the familiar yet important “Love Yourself” wherein she consoles a friend after a breakup. Indeed throughout her debut album and granted while she’s an entertainer first and foremost, I couldn’t help but wish I could force her albums instead of the usual over-sexed young women on MTV into the hands of impressionable teens and tweens who would all benefit from the clichéd yet vital lyrics of self-respect and the importance of friendship first.
Although I’d be hard-pressed to name a dud in the lot, I found myself less enthused by the pretty but forgettable ballad “I’d Just Be With You,” the excellent but depressing story song “Help Me, Help You,” the by-the-numbers “About Life,” and her innocuous yet not quite as successful “My Hallelujah Song,” which contains a message best expressed in the other superiorly written tracks.
However, one of the disc’s biggest surprises came from the Carpenters meets Osmond like “Dreaming Under The Same Moon,” which is a lovely duet with her older brother and fellow DWTS professional, Derek Hough. Despite some uninventive lyrics about spreading one’s wings, chasing rainbows and taking chances, the beautiful harmony in their voices (like the aforementioned groups or for a more modern example– Rufus and Martha Wainwright) really touches listeners in an affable song about the limitless connection between two people and the way it can transcend distance and circumstance. I couldn’t help thinking that although most listeners familiar with the Houghs would assume it’s simply a song about the family ties that bind, it’s meaningful on a number of levels from a promise between friends, parents and children, lovers, and those who may be away whether they’re studying abroad or fighting overseas.
Even though it clocks in at less than forty minutes, Hough’s debut album is not only on par with the Twain and Hill records of my teens but it reminds one of the entertainer herself. Namely, it’s bright, admirable, inspiring, infinitely wise and surprisingly worldly. It will be wonderful to see what Hough does next in her career. Whether or not she reinvents or “starts over” once again or adds an entirely new talent to her impressive resume (like Julianne Hough the painter or Julianne Hough the chef), one thing is for certain and that is specifically Julianne Hough is not only a dancer who can sing but a singer who can dance. And perhaps more importantly, she’s also one heck of a great role model for women even younger than her precociously twenty years.