You Say You Want an Evolution

I found this video recently on YouTube. It’s a chronological collection of all of Madonna’s music videos from the past 26 years. I’ve mentioned a few times that Madonna is one of my favorite artists. She’s definitely the best live performer I’ve ever seen, and she’s one of my favorite songwriters. It’s amazing to watch and listen to her music evolve and change with time:

You may be wondering how this is related to country music, and the answer isn’t the line dancing that she does at the 20:47 mark.

It just has me thinking about how so few country artists actually evolve over time, even some of those who are among the greatest in history. Think about how little Loretta Lynn’s sound changed over the two decades she was a radio staple. Brooks & Dunn have made quite a few albums since 1991,  but you could take just about any track they’ve done and place it on a different album without it sounding out of place.

The same is true for Alan Jackson, who has stepped out of his comfort zone exactly once, and he was crucified for it among traditional country fans. So after the creatively adventurous Like Red For a Rose, he went right back into his old groove with Good Time, and was promptly rewarded for it.

The same thing happened to Lee Ann Womack, who was ostracized for Something Worth Leaving Behind. The material was as solid as anything else that she’s done, but it wasn’t until she went back to hardcore country that she showered with praise.

I tend to prefer artists who try something new with each album. I remember Pam Tillis doing interviews for All of This Love. She talked about “The River and the Highway,” saying that she wouldn’t have put it on Sweetheart’s Dance because it would be out of place, but that on the new album, it was the centerpiece.

I’m always curious to hear what Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris will do next, since it always seems to be different from what they’ve done before. At the very least, I think an artist’s evolution over time should be audibly discernible.

What about all of you? Do you prefer artists who change it up? Which artists make for the most interesting listening when their work is played chronologically?

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23 Comments

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23 Responses to You Say You Want an Evolution

  1. Honestly, I don’t have complete catalogs of artists, but some newer artists with short catalogs show evolution.
    My first thought was SHeDAISY! Each of their albums is unique and sounds different than all the others. They’ve stayed within pop-country, but they started clever, then pushed the envelope on production on their second album. Their third had great lyrics, with a little more acoustic sound, while their latest album goes into their own mix, more ignoring other pop-country artists.

  2. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    My answer is going to be rather pedestrian.

    I don’t necessarily like an artist to do the same old thing if it gets stale and boring, which seems to be the case with Jackson’s latest album, but I don’t really like it when he/she changes what attracted me to him/her in the first place so much that I hardly recognize the artist anymore.

    So, I suppose I’d prefer them to stick with what works for them over doing things that are too experimental. In the end, however, it greatly depends on how it all sounds to me. If I like the change, I’m all for it. If I don’t, I’ll complain about how they shouldn’t have changed their sound.

  3. Perfect timing on this entry. I saw the Brooks & Dunn/Reba video over the weekend, and the way they had Kix and Ronnie set up playing guitars looked just like it could have been in a video from “Brand New Man”.

    I have much respect for the evolution that Mary Chapin Carpenter has gone through over the years. And can you have someone move any further away from what the public expects than the Johnny Cash albums with Rick Rubin?

  4. JHDNo Gravatar

    If I like the change, I’m all for it. If I don’t, I’ll complain about how they shouldn’t have changed their sound.

    Huh? Now that has got to be a woman thing! Sure sounds familiar enough! :-o

  5. Greg MNo Gravatar

    My first thought after reading this thread was The Dixie Chicks (I hope I’m not a one track mind this year, since I try not to be). Their first to albums were fun and a little on the crazy side, but you can see so much more in the Albums afterwords.

  6. JHDNo Gravatar

    Madonna? MADONNA……? *sigh* Your parents are right to worry about you! :-o

    “Like A Virgin” Yeah right, and all four of my kids are immaculate conceptions!

    I’m really, really interested to see what Miranda comes out with next. You really couldn’t make a chronological order of her stuff from “Charlie & Me” on Kerosene to “Gunpowder & Lead” on Crazy Ex-Girlfirend. She’s been really fun to watch and listen to. I bet whatever is next will be pretty darn good!

  7. Erik NorthNo Gravatar

    As usual, I must use Linda Ronstadt as an example in this area–somebody who is now into her fifth decade in the music business, and who is Eclecticism Personified: country; rock; jazz standards; Mexican rancheras; opera; folk; Latin jazz, etc. Linda does tend to drive people to distraction with these diverse musical wanderings of hers, but that hasn’t exactly stopped her peers from praising her to the hilt.

  8. ChadNo Gravatar

    The Chicks are a good example of this…it does take me sometime to adjust to new sounds from Country artists. It is an interesting point though. I do appreciate the artistic changes/growing of rock/pop/R&B artists, but I’m usually less willing to do so with my country artists. I wonder why??

  9. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar

    OK, I’m not trying to shoehorn or artificially graft Patty Loveless into this conversation here, but her story is actually a quite a natural example of artistic evolution..

    Patty’s style has evolved, as well as her vocals.

    This is an oversimplification, but here goes:

    When just starting out with her record contract and all back in the late eighties, Patty sang a lot of Honky Tonk Country, and her voice was great, very soulful and expressive, but had some rough edges.

    She also did some great covers of some classic Country such as Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Get You Off of My Mind”, and George Jones’ “If My Heart Had Windows”…and she also sang a lot of original material in the early years that had a strong traditional flavor.

    She combined the traditional Country sound with a lot of Rock and Blues influence, spicing it up to a mix she called “Traditional Country with an Edge”..”Chains” “Timber” and “On Down the Line” could be considered some examples of this style.

    The Nineties saw further evolution in Patty’s style, ironically for someone who is known as a staunch Traditionalist, many of her biggest hits in this period had some Pop influence to them. songs like “Lonely Too Long”, “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye” and “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”..And it was actually this Country Pop style that really brought out some profound nuance and depth of emotion in Patty’s voice, establishing her as one the finest and most transcendent interpreters of the period. But even in this period, she never strayed too far from her Mountain/Country roots and produced some excellent examples of Neotraditional Country Music with songs like “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me” and “Nothing But the Wheel” .

    The turn of the century was occasion for a complete return to roots album, the incredible “Mountain Soul” Here again, Patty combines styles and infuences…MS is a mix of Bluegrass, Mountain and Country…although even the Country is done completely in the Mountain style, with full Bluegrass acoustic intrumentation. But even this style was not new to Miss Loveless, she had covered the Carter family’s “I’ll Never Grow TIred of You” on her Honky Tonk Angel album, and the Mountain flavored “Some Morning Soon” on another early album.

    The critical and popular acclaim was so great for Mountain Soul, that there were many many calls for Patty to do a Bluegrass sequel to this masterpiece. She kinda did, with her wonderful Mountain Christmas album “Blue Grass and White Snow”,.But the next two albums were actually occasion for even further evolution to Patty’s style. She combined heavy Mountain acoustic influence and artfully blended it with electric, bluesy Country..Patty and her musical genius husband Emory Gordy Jr. pretty much created an unique new style, an Appalachian blend of acoustic and electric they called “Mountain Rock”. “Keep Your Distance” with Patty’s “Mountain moan” and steel guitar intro, end break and hollerin’ rounds.. may be the perfect example of this style. And the end fade of “I Wanna Believe” may be the finest example of dueling acoustic and electric intrumentation that I have ever heard.

    And now Patty Loveless comes full circle, adding yet another masterpiece to her catalogue with Sleepless Nights. Covering real Country Classics with one of the purest and most authentic voices in Country music, Patty does not take a step backwards here, but instead she reaches into the foundation of the genre, and brings forth some of Country music’s finest family gems, shines them up with her unique Appalachian alto, and lovingly passes them on to a new generation.

    If that ain’t artistic evolution, I don’t know what is.

    .

  10. I think it’s really apples and oranges. Madonna is a pop artist and pop music puts a premium on “the new”. That’s kind of the whole point of it, to be current and new and cutting edge. That’s why terms like “fresh” and “stale” apply well to pop music.

    Country Music is a traditional music (though it uses pop conventions) and, as such, doesn’t place an artificial premium on the new or even a concept of innovation for innovation’s sake. An artist may be recording music that sounds like it could be 40 years old, but that doesn’t really matter, so long as it’s good and it resonates.

    It doesn’t matter if Loretta Lynn’s music is changing to remain “current”, what matters is if it’s still successful at what it was successful at initially – that is, quality performances of great stories that help people feel more alive.

  11. Kevin J. CoyneNo Gravatar

    @Steve

    Patty was one of the artists I was thinking about while I wrote this. I describe her as a progressive traditionalist. She stays within the parameters of traditional country music while pushing its boundaries outward. Every album is distinctly different.

    @Hollerin’ Ben

    I think it’s a false distinction that you’re making between pop and country music. Even within the world of pop, most artists don’t change their sound that much. Madonna’s the exception there, too. And many posters have already named artists who do change their sound frequently, so it can be done.

    I never said that Loretta Lynn’s music should change to remain current, though I did make the distinction that it didn’t change while she was a core radio artist. That Lynn never tried to be contemporary is a myth. She tried to do the pop-country thing and failed miserably. It was too far out of her comfort zone. But Alan Jackson did the same thing and revealed depths to his singing that were previously unheard.

    @JHD

    Leeann’s comment doesn’t have anything to do with her gender, though her comment (which you truncated considerably and unfairly to make your point seem valid) is an example of intelligent and balanced thinking. So if her words here are a “woman thing”, you’ve basically conceded that males are the weaker-thinking gender.

    Also, the only worry my parent has for me is that I work too hard, not that I listen to Madonna. The “like a virgin? Yeah right” comment wouldn’t have been clever in 1985, and the woman’s been married and had children since then, in addition to becoming the most successful female artist in music history. Both of your comments make you seem to be stuck in a time warp.

  12. JHDNo Gravatar

    So if her words here are a “woman thing”, you’ve basically conceded that males are the weaker-thinking gender. I believe that you interpreted my point correctly! When you’ve been married almost four decades get back to me. You’ll find the older you get the smarter the fairer sex is. :-)

    Both of your comments make you seem to be stuck in a time warp. EXACTLY! This surprises you how?

    Not clever huh? How’s this? My Lovely Bride and I got up and walked out of a Madonna show when she simulated having sex with eight different males onstage. We were at a porn show. Explicit would be an understatment. Our then early 20s kids brought us to the show and they thought it was really cool and stayed. Their choice. There is nothing about the woman I find the least bit entertaining nor amusing. I was being nice by teasing you but if you’d like my full thoughts on Madonna I’ll be happy to share them with you. Or not! :-(

    Only been semi-coherent for a couple of weeks and I’ve already worn out my welcome Kevin? Ah well, that has to be a new record. Even for me! :-o

    Yol Bosun!

  13. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar

    Yeah Kevin, I think “progressive traditionalist” sums up very nicely the different styles of traditional and even non-traditional elements that Patty Loveless has woven into her own unique blend over the years…with the main ingredient always being the “tradition” part…I think Patty is in that sense a perfect example of an evolving Traditionalist, pushing the boundaries, as you say, but always anchored in the rich heritage of the genre, and preserving and promoting the distinct identity of Country music.

    I see Patty’s artistic evolution as not always linear, she and Emory often revisit the past for inspiration, but certainly not circular either. They do not allow themselves to merely re-live the past, covering the same old ground, but rather they re-interpret it, and bring forth something fresh, vital, and relevant. In that regard, I think Patty’s evolution is like a spiral.

    But there is one way that Patty’s progress has been completely linear and chronological..that is in the improvement in the quality of her always remarkable voice. Her vocals started out great, strong, soulful and expressive, but have gotten even better with each passing year. This upward trajectory in the richness, depth and expressiveness of her instrument never ceases to amaze, and is one of the marvels of today’s Country music.

  14. LanibugNo Gravatar

    To me the key to the change in a artist, is whether, their older stuff and their newer stuff can be blended together to make a cohesive sound.

    I want an artist to still feel comfortable, singing the songs that made them popular on stage, as well as the stuff that they are producing now – which I understand is not the case with some artists.

  15. KentNo Gravatar

    Hedley has evolved a bit, even though they’ve only released two albums. Both albums are pop rock albums, but their first was more alternative, while their second has more of a pop sound. Their second album shows them taking more risks and branching off more too, with Never Too Late, which has an infectious reggae beat, and For the Nights I Can’t Remember, an R&B tinged pop ballad.

  16. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar

    I do prefer my artists to try out different musical things throughout the course of their careers – I like how it kind of challenges the fan-artist relationship, keeps things exciting. But there have been lots of great artists who pretty much stuck to one sound or style, possibly because that was the only thing they were really good at, and that’s fine with me, too. It doesn’t make their great treatment of the one style any less great.

    I agree with Ben’s comment to a point in that I also think country music is (and should remain) at least partially stapled to a certain sense of tradition, whereas pop music will always be a bit more (to use Steve’s word from a previous thread) “amorphous.” Because I define country that way, I think a lot of the stylistic changes country singers choose frequently place them outside of what I consider the country tent – in music, at least, if not in marketing.

    I wouldn’t call Like Red on a Rose or most of Sugarland’s latest “country” (progressive, blended or otherwise), but I’m glad Jackson and Sugarland made those albums anyway, because they seem more interesting as artists for it. I don’t begrudge artists of any genre for dipping their toes in other waters now and then or trying to evolve their basic sound (as long as it retains whatever aspect of them I liked at first, like Leeann said) – I think that’s cool.

  17. Hard TimesNo Gravatar

    Re: Lee Ann Womack

    I love her. What irritated me to no end with “Something Worth Leaving Behind” wasn’t the music — I’m all for changing it up — but the packaging. They tarted her up to an embarrassing degree in a misplaced attempt to turn her into a pop star. It was hard to support the music because I didn’t want to support the direction I felt the record label was taking her career.

  18. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar

    Word, Hard Times. I hate to sound all anti-label (I’m not), but it’s sad that they so often try to make every new musical venture an artist takes into some kind of ‘redefining the artist’ marketing scheme. It’s very shortsighted, and it very rarely helps sell records anyway.

  19. For me, I like artists for the different ways they do things.

    Madonna is a great example of someone who can change it up, look how she went from Like A Virgin to Like A Prayer to Take A Bow to Ray Of Light to Don’t Tell Me to Hung Up. It takes a true master of the art to do that and string along tons of Number Ones. While I’m on the Madonna thing, I completly disagree with some of the statements that some have made. I’m a 15 year old male and I like lots of her music from all of the decades, and that doesn’t mean I have to like who she is as a person, that’s not what music is about. Just because I like country music doesn’t mean I have to stick within the genre, theres tons of great music in all genres.

    Back to topic- It’s refreshing to have artists change it up as long as it’s not for the worst. If the sound isn’t paying off for them then I’d be happy if they switched it, but if i t is working for them but they want it to sound refreshing I’d just want them to evolve the sound. For example: Shania’s The Woman In Me is much more country/rock while using elements of pop music while Come On Over is country/pop using some elements of rock music.

  20. LynnNo Gravatar

    Most of my favorite country artists do change it up frequently. They are always trying new things. Some work, some don’t – but I would be bored, and frankly disappointed, if they didn’t try something new. I understand Leeann’s remark that they should keep a toe in what made me fall in love with them in the first place, but if I get used to change, I expect change.

    I thought about this when I was putting together my soon to be released favorite songs by favorite artists for Steve Earle. The man has been the master of reinvention, and some of my favorite songs by him I would have a hard time classifying as country, but he is always true to himself. From “Guitar Town” to “The Mountain” to “Transcendental Blues,” it’s still him. If, over the years, he had come out with 10 versions of “Guitar Town,” I would have stopped paying attention a long time ago. My FSBFA list will be chronological for Earle because the songs would be impossible to rank (a little like comparing apple and oranges), but also because the evolution of his career is fascinating.

  21. Hard TimesNo Gravatar

    Lynn — I’m really looking forward to your Steve Earle list.

  22. badrockandrollNo Gravatar

    Hello all – I’m unlurking! Gotta say that I can’t stand any version of Madonna. She’s just too calculating and constructed for me. For non-country artists, I generally appreciate the variations that Joni Mitchell and David Bowie have presented over the years. For country artists, I agree with other posters about Emmylou and Steve Earle. I would also throw Marty Stuart into the mix: I am not a big fan of his radio hits, but I love his bluesy gospel sound, as well as his bluegrass stuff. I have seen most of these artists live, and I think that their performance skills show their collective creative secrets of freshness. For instance, there is no way that Steve Earle will not perform Copperhead Road, but there is also no way that he will perform it in 2009 in the way that he did in 1999 or in 1990. Anyhow, long post, but will end with a note of appreciation for this site – love the mix of mainstream with off the wall and with trad sounds. Thanks!

  23. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar

    Dag nabbit Lynn, you just reminded me that I need to post my Alison Krauss FSBFA soon! I’ve literally been sitting on that for months; it’s pretty sad.

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