When an artist is riding high, it only takes one bad move for it to all come crumbling down. Often, one album is blamed for slowing down a strong career, if not stopping it completely. Thus, those albums are often considered disappointments, even to the point that the artist is forced to apologize for them as part of their comeback attempts. While there are many cases where an artist does suffer because they didn’t put out a very good album, the following are twelve examples of when the artist got the music right, but the timing wrong. Look for more “top twelves” in the future.
12. George Strait, Holding My Own
MCA panicked when this was the first Strait CD not to hit platinum during the boom years. They made him ditch producer Jimmy Bowen for MCA head Tony Brown. The 5x-platinum follow-up Pure Country probably confirmed they were right, but listen to “So Much Like My Dad” from this project (another one MCA abandoned after two singles) and you’ll know he was still getting the music right.
11. Reba McEntire, Starting Over
Yes, it’s an over-the-top cover album, one that crystallized everything about Reba McEntire that people were getting annoyed with in 1995. That doesn’t change the fact that the woman can sing, and her covers of “Ring On Her Finger, Time On Her Hands”, “You’re No Good”, and “Five Hundred Miles Away From Home” were quite good.
10. Wynonna, revelations
This is an ambitious album driven by a spiritual longing. Radio didn’t have room for it – songs like “My Angel Is Here” and “Heaven Help My Heart” are too long and don’t sound right when removed from the context of the record – but the theme works so well here that even a cover of “Free Bird” sounds right at home.
9. SHeDaisy, Knock On The Sky
“Ever knocked on the sky and had it fall on your head?”, SHeDaisy asks on their current single “Don’t Worry ‘Bout A Thing.” They worked their collective butts off on this follow-up to their double platinum debut The Whole SHeBang. It’s a great album that showcases the Osborn sisters as great vocalists with a unique musical vision. Unfortunately, the backlash against uppity women at country radio was in full force, and the great singles “Mine All Mine” and “Get Over Yourself” disappeared quickly. Did I mention they were great?
8. Dolly Parton, New Harvest…First Gathering
It’s one of the biggest assumed truths in country music history – when Dolly went pop, she sold more records, but lost the heart. You have to look back to her early-to-mid 70’s record to understand her genius; the pop stuff was shallow and she became a caricature of herself. Now, listening to “Here You Come Again” and “Two Doors Down,” it’s easy to understand where this belief originated, but those songs are from her second pop attempt, not her first. New Harvest…First Gathering captures her trying to appeal to the pop market with songs as deep and probing as her earlier work; all that has changed is the production. She’s going to sell out on her next album, but listen to the majestic “Light Of A Clear Blue Morning” or “Where Beauty Lives In Memory”, and try to argue that she’s done it yet.
7. Faith Hill, Cry
How many women on this list were maligned for not being country enough? The follow-up to the 8x platinum Breathe is even more pop than its predecessor, but it’s actually a much better album. The conventional wisdom is that Hill went too far in the pop direction, but I think this project suffered because she went too serious instead. Breathe was known for its romantic title cut and fun up-tempo hits like “The Way You Love Me” and “If My Heart Had Wings.” This project has bitter tracks like the title track and “One”, and poignant probes of self-worth like “When The Lights Go Down” and “Stronger.” “You’re Still Here” might be the best thing she’s ever done. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here.
6. Trisha Yearwood, The Song Remembers When
How can her third platinum album in a row make this list? Well, go back to 1993. Coming off of the critically lauded Hearts In Armor, Yearwood was in an awkward position. She was starting to lose favor at radio – the last two singles from Hearts missed the top ten – and there was wide concern that she would not live up to the superstar potential that she seemed destined for with “She’s In Love With The Boy.”
She responded to this situation with an album that was even more serious, slow-paced and moody than its predecessor. Everyone agreed that the title cut was a masterpiece, but the rest of the album garnered criticism for being too middle-of-the-road; one reviewer called it “a strained attempt to establish Yearwood as a ‘mature’ artist.” MCA quickly abandoned the project after only two singles.
What a shame, since this is a solid album from top to bottom. Yes, it’s heavy on ballads, but what gorgeous ballads they are, from Jude Johnstone’s “The Nightingale” to Matraca Berg’s heartbreaking “Lying To The Moon.” The up-tempo stuff is hidden later in the album, and it’s hard to imagine radio resisting “If I Ain’t Got You” and “Here Comes Temptation” if they’d been given the chance to play them. Yearwood’s wry sense of humor also surfaces for the first time, with a biting cover of Willie Nelson’s “One In A Row”, the attitude of which foreshadows other great tracks she’d cut in the future, like “Everybody Knows” and “For A While.”
5. Patty Loveless, Strong Heart
Patty goes pop?!?!? Um, not really, but she was accused of doing so on this 2000 release that had a few drum machines where the fiddles used to be. The slick production turned some people off, but the criticism was unfair. This was another great collaboration with husband-producer Emery Gordy, Jr. – actually better, in my opinion, than the overrated On Your Way Home from two years ago – and it features some overlooked gems like “My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again”, the title cut and “Thirsty.”
4. Rodney Crowell, Keys To The Highway
Many of the albums on this list were career disappointments because they strayed too far from what made the artist popular; here, Crowell followed the formula to the letter that led him to having five straight #1 hits and winning a Grammy with his previous album, Diamonds & Dirt. The songs are just as good, and often better, particularly “Things I Wish I’d Said”; but radio didn’t bite, and neither did consumers. Crowell learned a lesson that would also be taught to K.T. Oslin and Mary Chapin Carpenter – intelligent and incisive singer-songwriters have a short shelf life at country radio; if you want to stick around, better learn how to pander.
3. Lee Ann Womack, Something Worth Leaving Behind
Here we go again. Womack is accused of selling out and going pop. And, yes, this project could be called a blatant crossover attempt – if it was released in 1962. This record is steeped in the Nashville Sound of those great Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves records. Womack is a traditional country artist who knows that Merle Haggard and George Jones aren’t country music’s only traditions. “He’ll Be Back” could’ve been sung by Jeannie Seely as an encore for the Opry audience still cheering after “Don’t Touch Me.” She also has an incredible song sense, and this album features some of her best material to date – Matraca Berg’s vicious “You Should’ve Lied”; Bruce Robison’s searing “Blame It On Me”; the title cut, which is a better life philosophy than “I Hope You Dance”; and the resigned “Closing This Memory Down.”
2. Dwight Yoakam, Gone
Yoakam followed up the biggest album of his career, the triple-platinum, Grammy-winning This Time, with this sonically progressive and more than a little strange project. The critics raved, but country radio didn’t know what the hell to do with it. The only minor hit on the album was the lead single “Nothing”, appropriately titled since the rhythm of the song and startling horn section was like nothing country radio had ever heard, or would ever play again. As a work of art, this album is brilliant; as a career turning point, it marks where Yoakam stopped caring about country radio, and they pretty much returned the favor.
1. Pam Tillis, All Of This Love
It’s easy to forget that there was a brief period where Pam Tillis was a budding superstar. In the wake of the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Sweetheart’s Dance, Pam won CMA Female Vocalist of the Year, appeared on Letterman, starred in numerous TNN Specials, had a sold-out headlining tour and scored four smash hits at country radio. The energy and spirit of Sweetheart’s Dance made country fans fall in love with Pam’s boisterous, optimistic and confident personality; she followed with the self-produced All Of This Love, which, incredibly, lacked all three of those qualities that had made her famous in the first place.
All Of This Love is a somber, dark and brooding album, where even the most bouncy melody is to the line “I’ve got the bleeding stopped, but there’s gonna be a scar.” Tillis is vulnerable and exposed, looking back with melancholy, rather than forward with optimism, on songs like “Mandolin Rain” and “The River & The Highway.” It’s a powerful record, but it certainly confused casual fans who had been hooked by “Mi Vida Loca”, or even earlier hits like “Shake The Sugar Tree.” Pam decided, consciously or not, to choose between being an entertainer and being an artist; her music has benefited from her choosing the latter, if not her career.