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BILLBOARD COUNTRY UPDATE

BILLBOARD COUNTRY UPDATE FEBRUARY 13, 2017 | PAGE 16 OF 22 MAKIN’ TRACKS TOM ROLAND tom.roland@billboard.com Newcomer Adam Craig Looks To Bridge The Gap In Next Career ‘Phase’ When Luke Bryan launches his Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day Tour, patrons would be advised to arrive in time to catch the opening acts, including newcomer Adam Craig. “Just a Phase,” his new Stoney Creek single, is the first to show Craig’s full, expressive range as a vocalist, and Bryan apparently doesn’t think Craig will be confined to opening slots for long. “We were just down at Crash My Playa with Luke, and it’s always a big deal when Luke Bryan makes fun of you,” recalls Craig. “He’s like, ‘Buddy, I guess I’m going to be your next phase you’re going through.’ ” “Just a Phase” is just different enough to stand out. Its structure is quirky, but most people are unlikely to recognize anything unusual about it as they experience the song. The phrase “I’m just a phase you’re going through” is a distinct and definable hook, appearing in the last line of all three verses. But those words never appear in what has been identified as the chorus. In fact, there’s some debate — even among its three writers — whether the song even has a chorus. There is a repeating, anthemic section that creates the emotional apex for “Just a Phase.” “That, to me in my head, is the chorus,” says Craig. But it only appears twice, it never includes the title, and musically, the end of that section feels less like a conclusion than a setup for what comes next. “It feels like a bridge,” says co-writer Lindsay Rimes, who produces LoCash and co-wrote the current Ryan Kinder single “Close.” “I think that’s probably because of the narrative of the lyric, too. It feels like you’re being taken on a bit of a story.” “I would not call it a chorus,” says co-writer Jim Beavers (“Drink a Beer,” “Red Solo Cup”). “Usually CRAIG your chorus is all about hammering home what the title and the idea of the song is about.” The “Just a Phase” title and general theme were conceived Oct. 19, 2015, during a writing session at the Sony/ATV Firehall on Nashville’s Music Row. The three writers were focused that morning on an uptempo song that specifically targeted another artist who was looking for material. They broke for lunch before they could finish, and upon their return, Craig tossed a new idea into the room. “On the drive in I’d heard that Justin Bieber song ‘Love Yourself,’ and it was just so different from what I had been listening to at that time,” remembers Craig. “It just struck a chord and had so much cool, raw emotion in it, and so I start talking to them about the song and that groove-driven thing.” Craig also had a working title, “Something You’re Going Through,” though the writers quickly turned it into “just a phase you’re going through.” The obvious next question was, “What’s the phase?” “I was like, ‘Well, what if the guy is the phase?’ ” remembers Beavers. “Nice girls are always attracted to the bad boy, even if it’s usually not for long. I’m sure there are songs that say that, but I’ve never heard it quite put that way.” Rimes found a soulful set of chords on electric guitar and played them with a spaciousness that mimicked the general style of “Love Yourself.” The opening lines appeared — “I’m a black Jack label/You’re a classic glass of red” — and they were off on a story about two people caught up in an ill-suited romance. They became aware in the room that day that their chorus — or bridge, or whatever they wanted to call it — was unconventional, though not unprecedented. The Beatles’ “And I Love Her” is constructed the same way, though Craig and crew went even farther out on a limb by introducing the “just a phase” hook only once before they hit the anthemic part. “Normally, you would do two verses if you’re going to end the verse with the hook like we did,” says Beavers. “That’s what a Beatles song would do. But in modern times, people say, ‘Get to the chorus in 30 seconds.’ ” That chorus — or bridge, or whatever — went into a pretty high range, too, thanks in great part to Craig’s vocal dexterity. “Having a great singer like Adam in the room, you end up having those possibilities,” notes Rimes. “If I was in the room with another artist, we may not have written that melody because a lot of artists can’t sing it.” Craig still thought of the song as something they would pitch elsewhere, but when Rimes produced the demo, Craig’s vocal became a big part of the appeal. “It was so different from what I had been doing that it took [an outsider] to go, ‘Dude, just trust me on this: That’s you. Go turn it in to the label right now,’ ” recalls Craig. BBR Music Group founder Benny Brown and executive vp Jon Loba were both high on “Just a Phase” and insisted that it find a way into Craig’s label debut, for which he had already cut roughly 15 songs. Rimes’ demo created a strong road map for producer Derek George (Randy Houser, Chase Bryant), whose biggest challenge was to humanize it. “It was all these programmed retro sounds,” notes George. “What I wanted to do is make it a little more classic-sounding than tracky.” George populated the session at Starstruck Studios with three guitarists — acoustic player Ilya Toshinsky and electric players Troy Lancaster and Derek Wells, who handled the punchy, choppy retro chords — and they carved out space for a solo that was double the length of the demo. George tackled that part later, albeit with some reluctance. “It’s so funny,” says Craig. “When we’re in the studio he always wants someone else to do the solo, and he’s one of the best guitar players in this town.” George had mixing engineer Casey Woods replay some of the original drum parts to make it a little more ragged than a studio musician would sound, and they set up the mic in the vocal booth to give Craig’s voice a distinct reverb. “We were really particular about the way the words ended, but I don’t remember having to spend too much time on the vocals,” says George. “He just sang the crap out of it.” Stoney Creek released Craig’s self-titled EP in May 2016 and worked a different single during the summer and fall. But when he performed at one of his frequent haunts — Cruzens, in Peoria, Ill. — on Oct. 1, the crowd had a surprising reaction to “Just a Phase.” “I just sang, ‘I’m a black Jack label,’ and I literally didn’t have to sing another word,” he says. “The crowd of 800-plus people was singing it at the top of their lungs.” Radio programmers were likewise responsive to “Phase” during his promotion tour, and Stoney Creek released the song on PlayMPE on Jan. 10. It debuts this week on Country Airplay at No. 60. Even though its chorus/bridge is a bit unorthodox, the song’s feel is mainstream in a way the writers had never anticipated at their 2015 writing appointment. Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” had made an impact at the time with an airy, guitar-based arrangement. Thomas Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man” and Keith Urban’s “Blue Ain’t Your Color” have since made the sound a bit of a trend. “We were simply just trying to find something odd and different,” says Craig. In the process, they might have come up with a key ingredient — with or without a chorus — to carry the singer into the next phase of his career. CHRIS HOLLO

BILLBOARD COUNTRY UPDATE FEBRUARY 13, 2017 | PAGE 17 OF 22 THE STARK REPORT PHYLLIS STARK phyllis.stark@billboard.com Led By Cam, Jon Pardi And Brett Young, California Country Emerges Again Tired of all your country artists hailing from Georgia, Texas or Tennessee? There’s a new crop of stars-in-the-making that may be on the cusp of reviving California’s reputation as a source of fresh-sounding country music. Among them: Cam, Jon Pardi and Brett Young, all of whom live in Nashville but were raised in the Golden State. All three artists say their music has been hugely inspired by their home state, particularly its quirky vibe and independent, do-it-yourself spirit. For some, the famous country stars who have either hailed from California or achieved their biggest successes after transplanting there have also had an influence, including Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Jean Shepard, Lee Greenwood and next-generation stars Dwight Yoakam and Gary Allan. Other emerging country and Americana acts with California roots include Sam Outlaw (who titled his first album Angelino), Temecula Road, David Luning and the California-bred members of the duo Haley & Michaels. And the state’s wide-ranging influence extends well beyond the artists who were born there. The next Big & Rich single is titled “California,” and Marty Stuart’s new album, Way Out West (due March 10), is described in press materials as “a love letter to the American west, specifically the promised land of California.” It’s no accident that Pardi, who hails from the Northern California commercial farming community of Dixon, named his debut album California Sunrise. “People out west love country music,” he says, noting the region is his biggest touring market. He grew up listening to country KNCI Sacramento, and among family members who were fans of the format. To this day, Pardi makes a visceral connection in his mind between listening to Bob Kinglsey’s syndicated countdown show and smelling the dust in his father’s work truck. Pardi comes by country music honestly. He hails from a long line of cattle ranchers and butchers, and his high school experience included nights of “sneaking down dirt roads with my friends and hanging out in the middle of some farm field blaring country music and hoping the farmer don’t catch us.” He cites Yoakam among his biggest influences, and was singing along to “Honky Tonk Man” when he was just a tot. Learning about Yoakam’s own influences drove Pardi to take a deeper dive into the music of Haggard and Owens. Amusingly, he learned the most about the country music history of his own state and its Dust Bowl origins after moving to Nashville and checking out the “Bakersfield Sound” exhibit then open at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. At that exhibit, Pardi says he discovered the Bakersfield country stars were known for playing “fast music and loud guitars,” something that he says is also a hallmark of his own band. “I was like, ‘Well, hell, we play fast and we play loud, too,’ ” he says with a laugh. Cam hails from the San Francisco area. While she wasn’t surrounded by much country music growing up, she remembers hearing a lot of Tim Mc- Graw, Shania Twain and Dixie Chicks at school dances. She had more exposure to the genre during frequent visits to her grandparents’ ranch in southern California, where their music of choice included Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson. While attending the University of California, Davis — which is near where Pardi grew up — line dancing became a part of her weekly routine. (“I don’t know if most people do this, but in California, you learn line dancing in fifth grade,” she says.) “Californians are probably the craziest group of people,” says Cam, noting that is a reputation the state’s residents have had since its earliest Gold Rush days. “We’re pretty extreme in terms of our drive and doing things ourselves. We believe everyone has an equal shot, and we don’t really judge people. It’s kind of played out in Silicon Valley now, too, [where] you see someone in jeans [who] could legit be a billionaire and it doesn’t surprise us.” She adds, “We’re like a jumble of all different kinds of people. It’s very freeing. I think that shapes who I am, how I view business and how I relate to people, and it also shaped [my] music. When I first started, I did a Kickstarter [campaign] and just raised the money myself. None of it was an industry normal route, which I’m very proud of. I think it was very Californian.” As for her Calicountry predecessors, Cam says, “I appreciate and love all of their music from Dwight and Gary Allan to, obviously, Merle and Buck, and mostly I really appreciate how everyone just did whatever they wanted to do.” She adds, “There’s something about being in California where to do [the legends] honor you want to stand on your own, too.” Young, who grew up in Orange County’s Huntington Beach, coined the term “Caliville” to describe his “West Coast meets Southern” sound and used the same name for his publishing company, his fan club and a clothing line he has developed. Unlike Pardi, none of his family and friends were really country fans, and Young says he first started listening to the music on local KFRG (K-Frog) to irritate his older sister, who hated it. (She is now a fan, he says.) With the help of songs like McGraw’s “Don’t Take the Girl” and Ty Herndon’s “What Mattered Most,” he fell in love with the music. Young says, “Before I knew it, I was turning it on to listen, not to annoy my sister.” Today, he says, “My sound is influenced a lot by the vibe of Southern California, specifically growing up on the beach and that kind of kicked-back, laid-back lifestyle.” But Young points out that while California country may be re-emerging, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula. Pardi has a much more traditional sound than either Young or Cam, who were more influenced by pop and pop-country while growing up. Young says bands like Ricochet and BlackHawk actually had more impact on him than Haggard and Owens. But, like Cam, he believes the state’s independent spirit influences its musicians. “Californian artists are kind of willing to push the limits a little bit further,” he says, “just because that’s kind of our mentality in that state.” In Nashville, says Cam, “The industry is very structured in the way music is put together and the way each of the sectors of the business work, and it’s very easy to get homogenized. What’s kind of cool about California musicians that are in country music is we’re just flying by the seat of our pants and doing whatever’s in our gut. I think it makes for a really different sound.” PARDI YOUNG CAM CAM: NINELLE EFREMOVA; YOUNG: CHAPMAN BAEHLER; PARDI: JIM WRIGHT

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