December 22, 2008
In a year where excellent mainstream country albums were few and far between, there were still many wonderful projects waiting to be discovered by listeners willing to look for them. Among all releases, mainstream and alternative, traditional and contemporary, folk and Americana, the Country Universe staff deems these ten the best.
Jim Lauderdale & The Dream Players, Honey Songs
You could forgive Jim Lauderdale if he showed signs of wear on Honey Songs, his fourth release in a span of 18 months. Instead, he’s produced yet another fresh package, this time by cherry-picking the best parts of rock ‘n’ roll’s roots and throwing ‘em into his ever-sharp traditional songwriting blender. His tunes have never been more perfectly framed, either, which you can attribute to the aptly-named “Dream Players,” a droolworthy backing line-up consisting of guitarist James Burton and drummer Ron Tutt (both Elvis Presley vets), pianist Glen D. Hardin and pedal steeler Al Perkins (both renowned session players), and bassist Garry Tallent (of Springsteen’s E. Street Band), not to mention Emmylou Harris, Kelly Hogan, Patty Loveless and Buddy Miller on vocals. If it’s been a while since you heard an instrumental part that sounded like it was actually written to complement its song, rather than just create sound, check out the melancholy electric/steel duet in the intro to “Borrow Some Summertime.” – Dan Milliken
Sugarland, Love on the Inside (Deluxe Fan Edition)
There has been no shortage of country acts that incorporate arena rock into their spin on country music, but on their third album, Love on the Inside, Sugarland manages to do so without the sound overwhelming the country identity of the work. At its heart, this is an acoustic country record, with most of the songs beginning with bare-bones instrumentation and more than a few staying that way.
But the clean and fresh production would all be for naught if the material wasn’t so strong, and Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush have collected their strongest batch of songs to date, with “Already Gone”, “Very Last Country Song”, “Keep You” and “We Run” only increasing in charm and power upon repeated listenings. The Deluxe Fan Edition is the version to go for, as the extra songs prove a fascinating listen. They’re almost fully formed and make you wonder why they weren’t deemed worthy of being on the regular album, until you notice that the hook isn’t quite strong enough or the lyric starts to fall apart at the bridge. Such tracks are usually unearthed years later, if at all, so it’s an extra treat to hear the good material that didn’t warrant inclusion on a great album. – Kevin J. Coyne
Peter Cooper, Mission Door
While the melodies on his first album, Mission Door, are enough to draw you in, it’s Peter Cooper’s provocative and insightful lyrics that take you by surprise on this folk infused, steel guitar laden album. Cooper either wrote or co-wrote ten out of the twelve tracks that explores such weighty topics as racism and poverty. He enlists the help of Nanci Griffith and Todd Snider, his two favorite singers, on the album’s stand out title track, along with recording his own mellower version of “Thin Wild Mercury”, which he co-wrote with Todd Snider for Snider’s The Devil You Know album.
The best and most powerful song on the album, however, is “715 (For Hank Aaron), a song that discusses the duality of Aaron being a revered baseball player and an oppressed black man. This mostly ignored album that sounds like a mix of Darrell Scott and Todd Snider, with lots of steel guitar thrown in for good measure, is one of the year’s most intriguing albums. – Leeann Ward
Lee Ann Womack, Call Me Crazy
When There’s More Where That Came From arrived in early 2005, Lee Ann Womack was lauded for her fidelity to traditional country music. Commercial plaudits were harder to come by, and the album only sold gold. Unsure of her next step, she abandoned country stardom for a time. The return is rather terrific; Call Me Crazy slows down the tempo, with producer Tony Brown complementing Womack’s once-in-a-generation warble by laying off the busy production of most Music Row releases. Exploring left-for-dead romances (“Either Way,” “If These Walls Could Talk”) or deep-rooted loneliness (“Have You Seen That Girl,” “I Think I Know”), Womack slides beautifully across every melancholic melody. – Blake Boldt
Emmylou Harris, All I Intended to Be
Emmylou Harris’ angelic, yet well-worn voice and ability to timelessly interpret a lyric puts her in a class of her own. Yet while she can sing the phone book and make it sound like scripture, All I Intended To Be rises above, seamlessly blending sublime covers of well-chosen songs, including Merle Haggard’s “Kern River,” Tracy Chapman’s “All That You Have Is Your Soul”, Mark Germino’s “Broken Man’s Lament,” Patty Griffin’s “Moon Song” and Billy Joe Shaver’s “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” and sensitive originals, with a graceful touch. The production is spare, but it only serves to highlight Harris’ moving interpretations. – Lynn Douglas
Justin Townes Earle, The Good Life
Justin Townes Earle is the son of Steve Earle, but his first complete project is mostly independent of his father’s musical influences. On The Good Life, Earle embraces various types of music, but mainly acoustic and traditional country music. For example, “Hard Livin’” opens the album with an incredibly catchy honky tonker that flows so naturally that it sounds like a cool jam session rather than a rigid studio recording.
While various topics are explored on this album, The prevailing theme of The Good Life seems to be loneliness. Townes Earle’s rich, warm baritone perfectly accentuates those melancholy feelings without making the album feel too dramatic. Moreover, the album manages to sound both nostalgic and fresh, which should appeal to traditionalists and country music newcomers alike. - Leeann Ward
Patty Loveless, Sleepless Nights
To justify their existence, collections of cover songs should accomplish one of two things: preserving the legacy of songs that are in danger of being forgotten, or bringing something new to the material through the artist’s interpretations. Sleepless Nights accomplishes both. It’s no secret that Patty Loveless possesses one of the finest voices in the history of country music, and the ache in her vocals make her a perfect match for the songs collected here, both those that are well-known today (“Cold, Cold Heart”, “He Thinks I Still Care”) and those that have unfairly faded into obscurity (“There Stands the Glass”, “Color of the Blues.”)
And while the influences of traditional vocalists like Ralph Stanley and George Jones are all over this record, Loveless’ phrasing and Emory Gordy, Jr.’s production are heavily influenced by the work of Linda Ronstadt, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. The songs are presented cleanly and reverently, without a Nashville Sound flourish to be found. The title track sounds like a glorious revival of the Harris version found on Pieces of the Sky. The result is an essential album that preserves not only the traditional songs that formed the foundation of modern country music, but the legacy of those country-rockers who lovingly revived it decades later. – Kevin J. Coyne
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
It’s easy to love That Lonesome Song for what it’s not. With mainstream country at what could well be an all-time artistic low, with fans and even some de facto music “critics” blissfully unaware of where the genre came from musically, with radio reycling the same five life-affirming themes over and over again and record labels playing exclusively to earn radio’s favor, it’s tempting to canonize Johnson’s latest offering just for being so damn counter-cultural, for daring to sound negative or mention “cocaine and a whore” or express sentimentality without smashing through the the fourth wall to manipulate the easy listener.
But Johnson’s latest is much more than a collection of tasteful avoidances; it is an album’s album, a set of songs which are strong on their own but combine to illustrate something much greater. Over the course of his fourteen tracks, Johnson embodies a character who endures lingering sadness in seemingly every aspect of his life, who searches for its antidote in drugs and relationships and humor and vacations and passive-agressive revenge and the past and the future, all to no discernible avail. You could interpret the album’s final moment, the Here-I-Am-World “Between Jennings and Jones,” as Johnson’s last, beautifully inconclusive answer to himself: he finds release from his demons through country music. Country music would do well to use him similarly. – Dan Milliken
Kathy Mattea, Coal
In a time when most songs about the poor working man are coated in sugar and wrapped in uplifting lyrics, Kathy Mattea brings us an album of poignant honesty, heart wrenching despair and searing realness. With Coal, the West Virginia-raised Mattea gives a voice to the coal miner, bringing us closer to his life and experiences, and reminding us all of the blood, sweat and tears that went into the building of America.
Produced with a judicious and loving hand by Marty Stuart, Coal touches on all facets of the coalmining experience. The album embraces songs about the horror of black lung (Hazel Dickens’ “Black Lung” and Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Red Winged Blackbird”), the modern destruction of a way of life (Wheeler’s “Coming of the Roads”), the hopelessness brought on by economic hardship (Jean Ritchie’s “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” and “Blue Diamond Mines” and Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”) and the back-breaking mining experience itself (Merle Travis’ “Dark as the Dungeon”). Interwoven all together, these songs, both contemporary and traditional, paint a heartbreakingly bleak picture of a way of life lived out of necessity, and not out of choice.
By making an album from her heart, inspired by real life tragedies and her Appalachian roots, and with the sole focus on doing justice, not only to the songs, but to the people that lived them, Mattea has created a timeless classic. – Lynn Douglas
Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson, Rattlin’ Bones
Last year’s critically-beloved duet, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, transported us to a sort of hillbilly nirvana. This year’s entry, Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson grounds us with a more down-to-earth approach. Rattlin’ Bones, an acoustic-driven set, resonates with its tight harmonies and terrific song choice.
Blending Appalachian music with blues and country, the duo gracefully glides through this exquisite exercise. Most notably on “One More Year” and “No One Hurts Up Here,” Chambers transcends heartache with her tender vocal. With husband Nicholson, whose hardy tenor supplies its share of lonesome, she echoes her desires and doubts. “Once in a While” and “Sweetest Waste of Time” are vulnerable moments where the pair stands witness to a dying relationship, and the title track is a dark, depressing look at an untameable loneliness. Love and life are full of tension and trouble, but these two, even through the darkness, hint that rich rewards lie beyond the sorrow. – Blake Boldt
These albums didn’t make our final list, but are also recommended.
Joey + Rory, Life of a Song
Little Big Town, A Place to Land
Charlie Louvin, Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs
Dolly Parton, Backwoods Barbie
Reckless Kelly, Bulletproof
Ralph Stanley II, This One is Two