Matt Stillwell

Take It All In

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Used to be, one could depend on a basic dichotomy in popular music of nearly any genre, that the more mainstream, conventional stuff would turn up on the major labels, while independents tended to issue the more left-of-center or otherwise unusual material. The decentralization of the business, in which every artist of whatever size has a website and the means for putting out his own music, has scrambled the old patterns, however. Presume, for example, that a country singer/songwriter/guitarist goes to Nashville and, despite conforming to current styles in country music, doesn't earn the favor of one of the ever-fewer major labels on one of the ever-shrinking rosters making music for ever-more-restrictive radio playlists. Now, that musician doesn't necessarily have to head home or take a job at a gas station. He can play gigs, save his money, and put out his own album. Enter Matt Stillwell, a North Carolina native and Nashville resident who plays more than a dozen gigs a month in the mid-South, building up a following and his bank account in order to finance this, his first album, on his own Still 7 Records label. In the disc's acknowledgements, he thanks himself "for working my tail off to pay for this thing!" He might also thank the A list of Nashville session musicians (including Dan Dugmore, who gets his name misspelled for his trouble) for giving him a sound competitive with what's on country radio. He does thank his co-writers, Lynn Hutton and Jon Henderson, who have helped him come up with a bunch of songs that sound like they could be on an album by Kenny Chesney or Alan Jackson. Stillwell celebrates good love ("Surrender") and mourns bad ("The Motions," "What Happened"). He pays tribute to God-fearing good people ("Trying to Get to Heaven") and to the joys of bootleg liquor ("Moonshine"). He imagines asking a dead father for the hand of his daughter ("Good Hands") and reflects on the challenges a father can face ("Heroes and Men"). It's all wholesome, straightforward, mainstream Nashville songwriting that happens not to be coming from a Music Row label. And it demonstrates that the formula can be mixed by an outsider who wants in just as well as it can by the insiders themselves.

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