As the nineties began, George Strait was the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year, a title noted on the belt buckle he wore on the cover of Livin’ it Up.
Around this time, Billboard switched to monitoring radio stations in real time, revealing just how often songs were really being played. So while all of his eighties #1 singles spent only a week at the top, all four of the #1 singles listed here spent multiple weeks in the penthouse, including two five-week runs at the top.
One of Strait’s most enduring hits, “Love Without End, Amen” foreshadowed the understated religiousness of future hits like “I Saw God Today.” A classic three act story song, it makes its point subtly and endearingly.
A minor hit for Cal Smith in 1968, Strait continues his tradition of reviving the country songs that inspired his style. It’s easy to see how this flew over the heads of many listeners when Smith first released it, but Strait’s smooth delivery helped get it some wider exposure 22 years later.
Nervy, nervous and a little unnerving, there’s a tension present here that is a bit jarring from the genre’s Sinatra. Sometimes bitter is just better, making this one of Strait’s most compelling singles to date.
Ever imagine what K.T. Oslin’s “Hold Me” would’ve sounded like if it had the same theme with a traditional song structure? Here’s your answer. It still sounds great today, though a bit more punch in the production would’ve helped a bit.
Western swing and wily wit, Strait shines on this comedic number. He plays it just straight enough to keep it on the right side of the line between good humor and silliness, never losing the self-awareness necessary to make it work.
As exciting as the prospect of George Strait singing a Gretchen Peters song might seem, she was definitely still honing her craft on this single that was co-written by Green Daniel. The concept is solid, and the imagery is vivid, but the parallels between the changing of the seasons and the impending changing of lovers aren’t drawn sharply enough.
The single biggest obstacle between a critic and a critical review of Old Yellow Moon is the reverence demanded by a collaboration of such artistic and historical significance. So why don’t we get that part out of the way first?
Nearly forty years ago, Emmylou Harris emerged from the shadows of the late Gram Parsons to forge her own solo career. By her side was a hungry young songwriter, Rodney Crowell. Supplying her with startlingly good material, Harris assembled a series of seminal albums that balanced his bold and original songs with both country and rock classics and other songs by marginalized writers.
In the years that have since elapsed, both have become legends, with Harris maintaining commercial success in mainstream country music and Crowell scoring hits as a singer as well as a songwriter. When radio was done with both of them, they had glorious second acts in the bourgeoning Americana scene, each of them producing albums that ranked among their best personal work.
Now the two legends have come together for their first collaborative album as peers, a project that now seems inevitable but until now seemed impossible, given how far the two have wandered from their shared starting point four decades ago. It sounds like the decision they made was to go completely back to their roots, so there are no Crowell polemics or self-penned Harris tunes.
Old Yellow Moon is a simple collection of country songs, most of which have been recorded before, sometimes by Crowell or Harris themselves. It’s worth noting that it’s a country album, too. It will be labeled Americana, but only because of AARP eligibility of the performers and the self-imposed limitations of terrestrial radio. Throughout the entire project, Crowell and Harris play it straight, a choice that produces some wonderful rewards but also holds the proceedings back at some crucial moments.
Let’s talk about the good stuff first. The album opens and closes with Hank DeVito tunes, and the opening “Hanging Up My Heart” finds Harris in fine voice, backed with a country beat that harkens back to her run of hits in the early seventies. The duo turns in a solid
cover of Roger Miller’s “Invitation to the Blues”, one of several songs that even relatively recent connoisseurs of traditional country will know well.
The challenge of familiarity hangs over the proceedings, and the artists find creative ways to counter expectations in some instances. “Dreaming’ My Dreams” has been covered to death, but their decision to alternate lead vocals between the verses and chorus adds a layer of shared regret that won’t be found in any of the excellent solo recordings of it in recent years. “Bluebird Wine” opened Emmylou’s first Reprise album, but having Crowell take the lead instead, with his haggard voice weathered by time, gives a new sense of redemption to the story of a drifter taken “in off of the highway.”
“Open Season of My Heart” was a wry highlight of Tim McGraw’s Live Like You Were Dying set, but Crowell’s delivery changes it completely. Where it was once dripping with irony and self-deprecation, it is now heartbreakingly despondent. A smart lyrical change that leaves off the original final line makes the transformation work.
The album includes a cover of Matraca Berg’s “Back When We Were Beautiful”, and it’s powerful to hear the lyrics sung by an aging voice. If Harris had gone the extra step and delivered the lyrics in the first person, it would have reached transcendence. That’s a disappointing missed opportunity, as good as the finished product still is.
Actually, that description is apt for a good deal of the project, which never dips below the level of pure, polished goodness but plays it a bit too safe to elevate it into the ranks of either artist’s best work. “Black Caffeine” is a cool song, but it begs for a more emphatic production, something along the lines of “Fate’s Right Hand” or “Deeper Well.”
“Spanish Dancer” is beautiful, but Harris doesn’t compensate her increasingly bewildering poor enunciation with enough vocal flourishes to paper over how hard it is to follow the storyline because you can’t quite understand what she’s singing.
“Bull Rider” does a decent job at mimicking the rhythm of Johnny Cash’s original recording, but you can actually hear that Crowell wrote it for Cash. He did so well at writing it for the Man in Black that his own take on it sounds like a demo recording in comparison, despite some cool harmonies from Harris along the way.
But complaining about the flaws feels a bit like complaining about some smudges on the window after returning home for the first time in years. The homecoming itself is its own reward, and while Old Yellow Moon isn’t among the greatest efforts from either Harris or Crowell, it’s a wonderful listen in its own right, and a welcome return for both artists to the simple pleasures of well-written and lovingly performed good old country music.
Many moons ago, when Big & Rich seemed like the most promising and interesting duo to hit the genre in eons, they put out a song called “Holy Water.”
It was a powerful song with empathetic feminism, the sort of solidarity with women that you usually don’t hear from men in cowboy hats. It cut through their cartoonish persona and showed that they could be incisively insightful. This was no small feat given it was the follow-up to “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)”, which had established that persona in the first place.
The best thing that I can say about “Cheat on You” is that it’s a startling reminder of that initial promise. The scenario is as believable as their empathy is palpable, and it lends a sincerity to the proceedings that’s gone all but missing in their post-Horse of a Different Color work.
Now, the second verse is a bit too predictable, and their harmonies rarely get out of first gear, so it’s hardly a perfect record. But it’s good enough to revisit for repeated listens, and what’s the last Big & Rich single that could be said about?
More importantly, it provides the boys a clear path, a way out of the larger-than-life, over-the-top caricatures that are as restrictive as they are annoying. But hey, Sawyer Brown triumphed over worse, and ended up making some of the best country music of the nineties. Maybe there’s hope yet for B&R to do the same.
Written by Kasey Buckley, John Rich, and Amanda Watkins
Country music has always been a singles genre, a fact that is clearly reflected on my iPod. Only three of my most thirty played country songs were never sent to radio. That doesn’t necessarily mean radio played them, of course.
My most played country song is Alan Jackson’s “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore”, which didn’t crack the top twenty, and not far behind is Trisha Yearwood’s “Where are You Now”, which didn’t crack the top forty.
But looking at our most played album cuts is a great way to discover great music we might have missed, so it seems like a good choice for an iPod Check. Here are my country album cuts that I’ve played more than 10 times, separated by artist. Plays to date follow the song title. Sort your list however you like. I’m getting my Amazon MP3 page loaded now so I can buy the great songs I’ve missed which surface in the comments.
Kevin’s Most Played:
Truth No. 2 (53)
Lil Jack Slade (22)
Am I the Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way) (21)
White Trash Wedding (17)
A Home (14)
Lubbock or Leave It (11)
Rocking Horse (54)
I Thought I’d See Your Face Again (27)
Play On (53)
See You Again (45)
Do You Think About Me (41)
I Know You Won’t (31)
Good in Goodbye (16)
Cupid’s Got a Shotgun (15)
Nobody Ever Told You (13)
If I Had Wings (40)
Racing the Angels (11)
Drown Me (40)
Standing Out in a Crowd (39)
Try Me (36)
Dreaming Fields (33)
Try Me Again (28)
Little Hercules (24)
Heart’s in Armor (24)
Harmless Heart (23)
For Reasons I’ve Forgotten (21)
A Lover is Forever (15)
Two Days From Knowing (15)
Come Back When it Ain’t Rainin’ (12)
New Kid in Town (11)
Shattered Image (36)
Down From Dover (16)
Let Her Fly (with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette) (13)
Today is Dolly Parton’s 67th birthday. What better time to revisit and relaunch our ongoing feature that reviews every single that she’s released in her illustrious career?
This post will look at her four singles from late 1975 through the end of 1976. Three were solo efforts, while the fourth was her final release of the decade that was a collaboration with Porter Wagoner.
“We Used To”
Written by Dolly Parton
It was clear by this point that Parton had designs on the pop market, but she hadn’t yet found the right way to make her style work in that format. So we get overlong pop ballads like this, which ramble on forever because Parton’s restraining her vocal trademarks that would make the record too identifiably country.
“Hey, Lucky Lady”
Written by Dolly Parton
Then again, even when she was being proudly country at this period, the material still wasn’t always up to snuff. It’s a shame that “Shattered Image” wasn’t sent to radio as the lead single from All I Can Do instead of of this endlessly repetitive ditty. This probably held the record for the most times a title was repeated in one song until Little Texas released “My Love” two decades later.
There is something poetic about this being their final duet together, aside from some unreleased tracks that would surface in 1980 after a prolonged legal battle. They went out on a high note, perhaps because of the palpable sadness that permeates the proceedings.
“All I Can Do”
Written by Dolly Parton
Another ditty, which is surprising given the heaviness of the
Even long-time readers of Country Universe could be forgiven for getting to #2 on our Top Country Albums of 2012 list and wondering, “Who on earth is Iris DeMent?”
Iris DeMent came out of nowhere in 1992 with a stunning debut album, Infamous Angel, that received rapturous critical acclaim. The general consensus was that it heralded the arrival of a new singer-songwriter for the ages.
Two years later, My Life only strengthened that sentiment, and DeMent was widely seen as a critical voice in what would eventually become known as the Americana music genre.
Then, in 1996, she returned with a slightly more commercial sound with the remarkably political album, The Way I Should. Reviews were a bit mixed, though in retrospect that may have been more because of its sonic departure from the first two albums than any issues with the topical content.
Then…she kinda disappeared. Not completely, in the sense that she still surfaced on collaborative efforts, most notably her work in 1999 on John Prine’s album, In Spite of Ourselves. She even starred in the movie Songcatcher, playing Rose Gentry in that 2000 film. But after releasing full albums of her own songwriting like clockwork every two years, the clock simply stopped. In fact, the only album she released at all before 2012 was a collection of gospel covers in 2004.
So the release of Sing the Delta was as much an introduction to Iris DeMent for 21st century fans of country, folk and roots music as it was a long overdue return that was patiently awaited by those of us who loved her the first time around. Delta is very similar in sound and structure to her first two albums, so those who are digging the new set should check those out first. They’re both essential listening.
But I’ve decided to be a bit more democratic and showcase exactly two tracks from each of her first three albums. In truth, if you like any of these selections, you should probably go ahead and just buy all three albums.
“Let the Mystery Be” – from the 1992 album Infamous Angel
The opening track of her debut set establishes her point of view immediately, and feels like the blueprint for all of her most multi-layered songs. What I love about this song is that she claims to be surrendering to the mystery of religious truth, which suggests a passive approach to matters of faith.
But her keen attention to all of the details found in both God’s creation and different religious beliefs around the world belie that indifference. Perhaps she doesn’t want to let the mystery be so much as she doesn’t want to lose the thrill of discovery and questioning that is sacrificed when you settle on just one essential truth.
A moving eulogy to a dying small town. Her mourning for the little community in which she chose to remain is also a bit of mourning for her own life choices, as she sees every major and quite a few minor life moments have taken place within the borders of one little dot on the map.
This masterpiece has been covered by both Merle Haggard and Joe Nichols, but even their fine readings can’t approach the raw power of DeMent’s original. Even the most sensitive child grows up to be a thick-skinned adult simply because of the mundane daily expectations that life places upon us with such bewildering urgency. Those feelings remain buried deep below the surface, and as DeMent eloquently demonstrates, it is incredibly dangerous to engage them at all, lest they refuse to return to the distant inner hole to which they’ve been banished with time.
“Easy’s Getting Harder Every Day” – from the 1994 album My Life
Budding sociologists looking for pop culture windows into the isolation and frustration of working-class middle Americans in the 1990s should pick up the first few seasons of Roseanne on DVD, then download this Mp3 and listen to it on repeat. Even when all the rules are followed and all of the basic needs are met, the happiness that comes with full realization of your true worth and talent remains forever elusive.
A stunning polemic that is perhaps most notable for being written during a period of relative peace and prosperity. DeMent noticed the troubles borne of inequity and inequality that were brewing under the surface and have since boiled over in recent years. She points the finger at all of the right culprits, too.
“The Way I Should” – from the 1996 album The Way I Should
A statement of self-worth that perhaps foreshadowed her decision to simply not record another album until she wanted to. Here, she defeats the voices whispering in her ear to work harder and meet some unreachable standard of success. She does so by rejecting the very metrics of measurement as completely invalid.
Carrie Underwood with Hunter Hayes
The Blown Away Tour
December 1, 2012
There’s a desirable sweet spot in every big performer’s career where they finally have a large number of hits to fill out a two-hour show, a compelling enough current album to sustain audience interest between the hits, and the appropriate level of earned confidence to take some bold risks in staging and presentation.
Carrie Underwood just hit that sweet spot. Her Blown Away Tour hit Newark on Saturday, playing to an arena packed with fans of all ages. It’s an arena show, too, filled with pyrotechnics and
special effects and a backing band that shook the cheap seats on the more rocking numbers. Opening with “Good Girl”, Underwood tore through an opening section which included a healthy mix of hits from all four of her studio albums.
But the show didn’t hit its stride until the second section, when she surprised the audience with the appearance of a choir from local elementary school P.S. 22. They supported her in a touching rendition of “So Small” that lived up to its name, stripping the bombast from the studio recording and letting the lyric shine over the sweet harmonies that only bewilderingly talented tots can produce in unison. The arena felt as intimate as a sitting room as she sang “Temporary Home”, which seemed to have her on the verge of tears by the third verse.
After a few more hits, the show peaked with an ingenious third act that had Underwood floating above the audience on a moving platform. Why was it ingenious? It solved a few arena show dilemmas at once, keeping the entire audience riveted while the artist sang unfamiliar album cuts. At the point of the set list usually designed for bathroom breaks, Underwood had the entire arena on their feet, cheekily waving to and interacting with the audience members all around her, and even those directly under her. These are the benefits of a clear plexiglass floor, you see.
At times, the staging was a bit too ambitious. The video screens that were used so effectively for visual songs like “Two Black Cadillacs” were a glaring distraction for much of the show, with random patterns that looked more like late nineties Windows screen savers than anything else. Transitional interludes featured some interesting animation, but it was interrupted by glamour shots of Underwood, as if they were afraid we’d forget about her while she was changing costumes backstage. But the opening and closing projections centered around “Blown Away” were executed brilliantly, among the best I’ve seen in an arena show.
Vocally, Underwood was nearly flawless, never missing a note but occasionally losing her breath while she enthusiastically engaged the audience. At times, she seemed a little overwhelmed by her band, most notably during a painfully loud cover of Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion.” When the arrangements were slower or simpler, with her voice accompanied by only a handful of instruments, she sounded better than I’ve ever heard a powerhouse vocalist sound in concert.
When you combine her precision with the very few liberties the band took with the studio arrangements, and you could be forgiven for thinking you were listening to an actual studio recording. She really is that good. She somehow elevated the fan favorite “I Know You Won’t” to staggering new heights, and that’s a song that seemed superhuman even as a studio recording. I repeat, she really is that good. But most impressive was when she revisited older tracks like “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Wasted”, and actually improved on them, showing how much she has grown in interpretive skill and vocal nuance since the beginning of her career.
Those hits from the first album, along with the pre-encore closer “Before He Cheats”, where absolutely the biggest crowd-pleasers, giving anecdotal evidence to the theory that Underwood’s greatest competition has been herself. Those early hits have overshadowed everything she’s done since, successful as she’s been. But I discovered something when she closed the show with “Blown Away.” The audience roared at the opening notes, after having been teased mercilessly with clips from the video all night. There was more energy and excitement during that performance than at any other moment. It’s her first career record in years.
Underwood was classy and thoroughly charming throughout. That light shines through even when her material’s at its darkest. It was a minor annoyance for me that I was surrounded by tweens, teens, and twenty-somethings that stood for the whole show and sang along with far too many songs. But seeing a whole row of those tweens in Carrie Underwood t-shirts, clearly at their first big concert and hanging on every word that their idol sang, I was struck with a deep appreciation for this artist. I’ve always been grateful that she respected the genre’s traditions and institutions, but I’m always worried about preserving the genre’s past. She’s also securing its future, as perhaps the only artist in country music history who can pack an arena that is equal parts tween, young adult, and the rest of us. In that sense, she just might be the most significant country artist of her time, in addition to being the flat-out best singer.
I missed the first couple of songs by opening act Hunter Hayes, but judging by the piercing adolescent screams that permeated the arena, he won’t be an opening act for much longer. I must say that he’s remarkably talented. I expected the country arrangements and the solid vocals, but his prowess with both the guitar and the piano took me by surprise. He’s somewhere between Keith Urban without the gravitas and Gary LeVox without the nasal drip. Hopefully, he’ll keep honing his songwriting skills and his audience will stick around as he develops. He’s got more promise than most of his contemporaries.
Carrie Underwood Set list:
I Told You So
Two Black Cadillacs
So Small (with P.S. 22 Student Choir)
Jesus, Take the Wheel
Get Out of This Town
Nobody Ever Told You
Thank God for Hometowns
Do You Think About Me
One Way Ticket
Flat on the Floor
Leave Love Alone (with Hunter Hayes)
Remind Me (with Brad Paisley via Video Screen)
Cupid’s Got a Shotgun
Before He Cheats
I Know You Won’t
You know how some kids are all excited to go into battle, and then they join the army and find out what war’s really like?
“Somebody’s Heartbreak” is the lovestruck equivalent of that misguided innocence. Hayes is volunteering to get his heart broken by the girl he fancies, figuring it’s better to have love and lost than to have never loved at all.
It’s charming. It’s country. It’s sweet but not saccharine. It’s a teenage country record that’s equal parts teenage and country.
The young guy’s ridiculously talented, and I hate to send ill will his way. But honestly, I can’t wait ’till this guy really
He’s widely hailed as the leader of the new traditionalist movement of the mid-eighties, but his impressive sales numbers made him something the genre had never seen before: a traditionalist superstar.
Travis was born Randy Traywick in a town just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. His youth was marked by two distinguishing features: a prodigious talent for music and a dangerous rebellious streak. As a teenager, he played clubs with his older brother Ricky, but when the elder Traywick was jailed after a car chase, Randy moved to Charlotte proper to launch his own career at age sixteen.
Randy won a talent contest at a club owned by Lib Hatcher, who took him under her wing and soon under her guardianship, after he barely evaded jail for what he was warned would be the last time. Hatcher took on the role of manager, and managed to land an independent record deal that resulted in a minor hit in the early eighties. A stint at the Nashville Palace and a well-received independent live album helped him land a deal with Warner Bros. Records.
The label convinced him to change his performing name to Randy Travis, and in 1986, his star took off. He released the seminal album Storms of Life, arguably the most significant country album of the decade. Its stunning multi-platinum success made Travis a household name, and destroyed the conventional wisdom that country must abandon its traditional sound to cross over to mainstream popularity.
Travis dominated the singles and albums charts for the next ten years, selling out arenas and racking up major industry awards. But as significant as his own success was, he was just as important for creating the climate that allowed future legends
like Alan Jackson, Clint Black, and Garth Brooks to reach massive sales heights without the help of pop radio. Though he was soon overshadowed by those giants, his sound remained the blueprint for mainstream country music well into the nineties.
Travis continued to score hits after leaving Warner Bros. for Dreamworks Records, but by the turn of the century, he was focusing his attention on country gospel music. Even this detour produced a surprise country hit, with “Three Wooden Crosses” returning him to the top of the country charts in 2002, after an eight-year absence from the penthouse. While he still remains primarily focused on the Christian market, his legacy continues to reverberate. Most recently, Carrie Underwood revived his self-penned hit “I Told You So”, and invited him to record a duet version for the radio that peaked at #2.