Since the release of his debut single Best Shot back in 2018, Jimmie Allen has been one of the hottest rising stars in country. Best Shot and the follow-up Make Me Want To both topped the Billboard country charts – as did his debut album Mercury Lane – and he’s won over legions of fans in the US, as well as here in the UK with his performances at Country Music Week and C2C: Country to Country. Now he’s back with his new EP, Bettie James, which sees him collaborating with a whole host of stars from the music world.
The seven-track set kicks off with the uptempo Good Times Roll, featuring Nelly. It mixes a twangy banjo intro with sharp, snappy drum beats and has a laid-back, fun vibe that’s sure to see it get plenty of radio play over the summery vibe. Allen’s smooth vocals partner well with Nelly’s deep, soulful tones and I loved the references back to Ice, Ice Baby and Nelly’s own hit Country Grammar in the lyrics as well. There’s a real hands-in-the-air, singalong feel to the song and the guitar riff towards the end gives it a classic rock vibe, something that recurs throughout the EP.
One thing which really struck me about Bettie James was the sheer variety of styles on there. Drunk & I Miss You is a passionate, yearning duet between Allen and Mickey Guyton which features 90s R’n’B sounds, some fantastic harmonies and impressive high notes, and the lyric ‘tequila line’ (which is possibly the best drunk-dial reference I’ve ever heard in a country song). Elsewhere, there’s Brad Paisley collaboration Freedom Was A Highway, which has a nostalgic feel reminiscent of the Eagles classic Boys Of Summer and is packed full of details like a barbed wire fence and a cross-wind on a deserted road that puts you right in the scene.
However, what pulls the whole project together for me is Allen’s excellent vocals. We know from his previous work and live shows that he has an incredible range and is able to bring some serious power to his songs, and this is apparent throughout Bettie James. One particular highlight is the belt he showcases on Made For These, a piano-led ballad with Tim McGraw that speaks of getting through the tough times with the hope of better days ahead and wouldn’t sound out of place on a film soundtrack. Allen really lets rip towards the end of the track and showcases just how talented a vocalist he is.
For me the two standout tracks come towards the end of the record. Why Things Happen, a collaboration with Darius Rucker and the legendary Charley Pride, is a contemplative track which focuses on personal tragedies yet seems to speak to a much wider context in the current political climate, managing to be both timely and timeless. Allen’s voice works beautifully with Rucker and Pride’s, and together the three of them have created an incredibly powerful and moving song. Meanwhile, When This Is Over, which features Tauren Wells, Rita Wilson and a stunning ending from The Oak Ridge Boys, carries a great sense of hopefulness and optimism during dark times. It could so easily become cheesy and mawkish, but Allen, Wilson and Wells maintain the delicate balance and give the song an anthemic yet heartfelt feeling, as well as allowing Allen to show off some impressive vocal runs.
The EP closes with current single This Is Us, which sees Allen duetting with Noah Cyrus. It’s a more pop-influenced track than the rest of the project, with an almost confessional feel as Allen and Cyrus both admit to youthful indiscretions before coming back together. Their vocals blend together really well, with Allen’s soulful sound providing a nice contrast to Cyrus’ sweet yet husky voice, and there’s a frankness and maturity to the lyrics that feels like a step up from Allen’s previous work. It’s a dramatic way to end the record and leaves me excited to see where Allen’s solo music goes from here.
Overall Bettie James shows the progress Jimmie Allen has made as a performer, with some stunning vocals throughout – as well as showcasing the talents of his collaborators – and drawing on a variety of influences from country and pop to rock, hip-hop and R’n’B. He’s created a record that establishes his unique sound whilst retaining hallmarks like smooth vocals and skilful songwriting, and has laid the groundwork for the direction his music might go in in future. Personally this is a record I’m going to be playing for the rest of the summer and I’m hoping he’ll be able to come over to the UK and perform some songs from it live before too long.
Track listing: 1. Good Times Roll (with Nelly) 2. Drunk & I Miss You (with Mickey Guyton) 3. Made For These (with Tim McGraw) 4. Freedom Was A Highway (with Brad Paisley) 5. Why Things Happen (with Darius Rucker and Charley Pride) 6. When This Is Over (with Tauren Wells, Rita Wilson and The Oak Ridge Boys) 7. This Is Us (with Noah Cyrus) Record label: Stoney Creek Records Release date: 10th July 2020