She’s been screaming her head off for so long now, it’s easy to forget that Martina McBride once seemed destined to make albums like Emmylou Harris rather than Mariah Carey. Her third album is a startlingly strong collection of songs, sung with subtlety and maturity. It lacks bombastic vocal performances and “issue songs”, her two signatures these days, but the stories told about everyday life are ultimately more compelling: a husband on their anniversary confessing to his wife that he feels like a failure (“All the Things We’ve Never Done”), lonely women leaving after being fed up with cheating (“Phones Are Ringin’ All Over Town”) and fighting (“Cry on the Shoulder of the Road”), single women waiting patiently (“Safe in the Arms of Love”) and admitting they’re not as strong as they seem sometimes (“A Great Disguise”, “You’ve Been Driving All the Time.”) Opening with the classic title track and closing with the Beatlesque “Beyond the Blue”, which allows McBride to shine by blending with harmony singers, this is an album that showed great promise when released and now, eleven years later, reminds us of what could have been.
Download This: “All the Things We’ve Never Done”, “Safe in the Arms of Love”, “Cry On the Shoulder of the Road”
Honky Tonk Angels
Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn & Tammy Wynette
Three of the most important women in the history of country music came together for a project that is as much a history lesson on classic country music as it is a stark reminder how much these three ladies contributed to its development. Featuring guest appearances by Kitty Wells (“It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels”) and, from beyond the grave, Patsy Cline (“Lovesick Blues”), the ladies cover some of the most important artists and records in the history of the genre, turning in beautiful, harmony-laden versions of “Silver Threads and Golden Needles”, “Wings of a Dove” and “Please Help Me I’m Falling”, among others.
What’s most significant about the album is that it illustrates how much substance was lost at country radio when it decided to put some of its most vibrant talents out to pasture. Yes, there had always been a turnover – as Vince Gill sang, it’s a young man’s town, but these ladies were among a generation that also included Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. These artists all had fascinating new things to say when they were young, and a smart and honest look at middle-age and the later years of life would’ve added deeper dimension to the country hit parade.
For proof, look no further than the three new songs included on this project. It’s often overlooked that these three legendary singers are also among the greatest singer-songwriters the genre has ever produced. They approach the themes that dominated their early hits from a mature perspective here. Dolly Parton contributes “Let Her Fly”, a plea to God about a mother who has passed on; ever the optimist, she poignantly observes that “the old family tree is shedding its leaves, but we’ll all meet in heaven again.” Loretta Lynn is still with the man that she warned “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)”, but with time, she’s become resigned to a life where the bottle comes first on “Wouldn’t It Be Great”, where she sadly sings, “Wouldn’t it be great if you could love me first and let the bottle wait.” Who besides Lynn could ever be so candid as to sing, “When the sexy lace couldn’t turn his face, the bottle took my place, love went to waste”?
Most powerful is Wynette’s contribution, “That’s The Way It Should Have Been”, where she completely rewrites her own life history in the verses, describing a charming courtship and eventual marriage and family with a man she reveals she met too late in the chorus, as she was already taken. Lynn and Parton have both experienced Grammy-winning career revivals in recent years, but an early death robbed us of the chance to hear what Tammy Wynette still had to say. For the amazing suggestion included on this set, the album is a must-have.
Download This: “Let Her Fly”, “That’s the Way It Should Have Been”, “Wouldn’t It Be Great”
American III: Solitary Man
Cash’s work with Rick Rubin is rightly celebrated, and it peaked with its third volume. This is the last album Cash made where his voice doesn’t sound strained, and the covers that have defined this series are the most diverse and effective they’d ever be. Sharp takes on Tom Petty (“I Won’t Back Down”), U2 (“One”) and even Tanya Tucker (“Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone)” are all highlights, but it’s the chilling Death Row saga “The Mercy Seat” and the similarly dispiriting “I See A Darkness” that are the most powerful. Throw in an awesome duet with Merle Haggard (“I’m Leavin’ Now”) and hilariously self-deprecating cuts like “Country Trash” and “Nobody”, and you have one of Cash’s strongest albums ever.
Download This: “The Mercy Seat”, “I See A Darkness”, “I’m Leavin’ Now”
Live Like You Were Dying
Much like Lee Ann Womack’s I Hope You Dance, this is a classic album overshadowed by a title track that became an inspirational mega-hit. McGraw’s albums before this were all frustratingly inconsistent; he’d find quirky, fascinating songs and turn them into mainstream hits, but pad them with filler that sounded all the more plain next to gems like “Angry All the Time” or “Please Remember Me.” Not this time. McGraw turned in an album that has one great song after another. How could he go wrong with songwriters like Bruce Robison (“Old Town New”) and Rodney Crowell (“Open Season On My Heart”)? His sense of humor is apparent on tracks like “Can’t Tell Me Nothin'”, “Back When” and “Do You Want Fries With That”, but he also deals with faith (“Drugs or Jesus”), alcoholism and spousal abuse (“Walk Like a Man”) and most poetically, unintentional neglect of a close friend (“My Old Friend”). A slightly tighter playlist, and it would be in the top five of this list.
RIAA: 4x Platinum
Download This: “My Old Friend”, “Drugs or Jesus”, “Walk Like a Man”
There’s More Where That Came From
Lee Ann Womack
With all the warmth of seventies analog, Womack’s best album to date is a near-flawless homage to classic country. Anybody can slap twin fiddles and steel guitar on a country song, and many contemporary artists who put those trimmings on mediocre songs have been praised as saviors for the format for some reason. Womack knows country is a hell of a lot more than that, and she recaptures those golden years of the genre by wallowing in the cheating, drinking and misery like no mainstream female artist has been willing to do brazenly since Sammi Smith. The title track is a brilliantly tortured confession of a woman who prays to God to help her forget her cheating, not to forgive her, because she knows she’s going to answer the next call she gets from her lover. The instant standard “I May Hate Myself In The Morning” is the truest account of heart over mind country radio has had the chance to spin this century. Even the spiritual closing track, “Stubborn (Psalm 151)”, is anything but a celebration of faith; the woman is refusing to let go of her pride and give in to God. Album owners know that letting that song play after it fades will lead to a bonus cut, her take on the Porter & Dolly classic “Just Someone I Used To Know”. What’s most impressive is not her faithful cover of that hit, but how perfectly natural it sounds with the rest of an album recorded decades later.
Download This: “I May Hate Myself In The Morning”, “Stubborn (Psalm 151)”, “The Last Time”