Various Artists, Ultimate Grammy Collection: Classic Country and Contemporary Country

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December 13, 2008

Various Artists

Ultimate Grammy Collection:

Classic Country

Contemporary Country

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Earlier this year, the Grammys celebrated their fiftieth anniversary with a series of compilations focusing on winners in different fields.  Two of the best entries in this series focused on country music.  With five decades of winners to choose from, it’s no surprise that Ultimate Grammy Collection: Classic Country and Ultimate Grammy Collection: Contemporary Country are solid collections.

The Classic Country set is particularly strong, including a diverse selection of significant artists from the sixties and seventies.   Even better, most of them are represented with their signature tracks.    Roger Miller opens the set with “King of the Road”, easily his biggest hit.   Other superstars include Tammy Wynette (“Stand By Your Man”), Johnny Cash (“A Boy Named Sue”) and Waylon & Willie (“Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”)

As the collection moves on to the seventies and eighties, there is a healthy portion of pop-country classics from the likes of Kenny Rogers (“The Gambler”), Dolly Parton (“9 to 5″), Crystal Gayle (“Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue”) and Willie Nelson (“Always on My Mind”).   In the midst of that crossover sound, however, there’s  a healthy dose of traditional country, courtesy of George Jones  with “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

That Jones track is the only one that wouldn’t be familiar to fans that buy the set because they remember those crossover hits, even though it’s a country classic.   They might also revel in the discovery of  Ray Price (“For the Good Times”) and Jerry Reed (“When You’re Hot, You’re Hot”), which were both AM radio staples back when top 40 regularly played country records.     The set also includes mega-hits from Charlie Daniels Band, Lynn Anderson, Donna Fargo and Jeannie C. Riley.   The only real misstep is the inclusion of Johnny Cash & June Carter’s “If I Were a Carpenter”,  an unnecessary inclusion that was no doubt shoehorned in because of lingering sentiment for all things Cash.   That slot would’ve been better represented with Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn’s “After the Fire is Gone.”

The line between classic and contemporary country apparently lies somewhere between 1982 and 1989, as Classic Country ends with Nelson’s anniversary standard and Contemporary Country opens with Vince Gill’s 1989 heartbreaker “When I Call Your Name.”   It’s an unfortunate decision that leaves The Judds represented by “Love Can Build a Bridge” instead of “Grandpa”, and Randy Travis left out entirely.

But there are still quite a few classic cuts on the second collection.  “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” is arguably Dwight Yoakam’s finest single,  and there are hits here that were on the same grand scale as those on the classic set, including entries by Gretchen Wilson (“Redneck Woman”), Carrie Underwood (“Jesus, Take the Wheel”) and Tim McGraw (“Live Like You Were Dying.”)   LeAnn Rimes makes an appearance with “Blue”, and since she lost the “nominated for the same song” showdown, Trisha Yearwood follows with “How Do I Live.”

The refined taste of Grammy voters also makes its presence known, with winners by Asleep at the Wheel and the Mavericks.   Unfortunately, there are also some subpar entries, including forgettable tracks by Alison Krauss (“Looking in the Eyes of Love”) and Emmylou Harris (“The Connection.”) Both women are Grammy favorites, so their inclusion isn’t surprising.    What is surprising is the exclusion of other Grammy favorites, most notably the Dixie Chicks and Shania Twain, who have won nearly twenty trophies between them.    Given that room was made for a so-so June Carter Cash and Brooks & Dunn tracks, the absence is all the more noticeable.

While it would be a stretch to call either of these sets definitive portraits of their respective eras, given their relatively brief length and broad scope, they certainly serve as fitting introductions.   Despite  the Grammys ‘ reputation for being left of center with their country winners, these two sets make clear that they’ve honored the criticially acclaimed and the commercially successful over the years, with the artists who fit neatly in both categories taking home the most trophies of all.

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