Writing a song about a current event that pulls at the heartstrings is a difficult thing to accomplish without seeming opportunistic, not to mention that the part of current fades away over time and can potentially make a song seem irrelevant as a result. It’s inevitable, however, that such songs will be written, since one of the most emotional ways to respond to a tragedy is to process feelings through music.
So, a country song about the horrific event that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut, last December, a mere 7 months ago, is tasked with the delicate undertaking of striking that sensitive balance of honoring rather than exploiting. Although it seems impossible to do, Alan Jackson did it with “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” for the worst national tragedy in my lifetime. And while this may not turn out to have the same broad recognition as that untouchable musical moment, George Strait’s tribute to those who lost their lives in Newtown successfully does the same.
“I Believe” quietly displays a strong faith that expresses the solace felt by believing in a higher power that can help heal the most broken of hearts. Supported by gentle production, Strait tenderly sings of the lost “26 angels” with palpable reverence and hope. Strait’s voice is as solid as ever, including strong and mournful falsetto notes, which perfectly emotes the sincerity and compassion that a song of this magnitude requires. There are no lyrical or note-bending histrionics by Gentleman George here - just a tribute from a humble man conveying a simple sentiment of real heartbreak, buoyed by faith and hope.
Written by Dean Dillon, Bubba Strait & George Strait
As you may have noticed, the Country Universe staff loves to find ways to participate in joint writing projects. So, while it won’t be the exclusive way that we review albums, we thought we would give a new, more collaborative album review format a try. As an offshoot of our Round Table Single Reviews, which could become repetitive when we all agreed on a particular track, we are test-driving Round Table Album Reviews, which will give us all a chance to weigh in on different tracks and aspects of a single album. With this format, even if we all generally positively (or negatively) agree on an album, as happens to be the case here, we still have room for a variety of perspectives.
LeAnn Rimes Spitfire
It’s certainly no secret that LeAnn Rimes has lived a tumultuous life, a fact which has been sensationalized by various media outlets throughout her career. While her male counterparts are frivolously singing about cruising backroads, partying life away and generic love, Rimes has channeled her life circumstances into an emotional and fiery work of art, just as true artists tend to do. As a result, music critics have taken notice and have rewarded her efforts with high praise and acclaim.
As Dan observed in his review of the album’s lead release, Rimes is “an artist who hit her commercial peak early, but whose creative peak is still sloping up with each passing year.” Rimes’ Spitfire demonstrates that the trend continues with the best album of her career and, certainly, what will be one of the shining albums of 2013. - Leeann Ward
“Gasoline and Matches” (with Rob Thomas, featuring Jeff Beck)
In an album rife with weighty reflection and introspection, the nearly frenetic “Gasoline and Matches”, originally written and performed by Buddy and Julie Miller, is a welcome reprieve. It’s as intense as the rest of the album, but in a decidedly different way.
Lyrics like “You pull my pin and you trip my wire/Yeah, well, you come in and set my heart on fire/You knock me out, you rock me off my axis” signal that this isn’t just some run-of-the mill love song, but rather, a cleverly constructed, fiery romper. What’s more, is there a more endearing proposal line than “Baby, we should get related”? Maybe so, but it perfectly fits the cheekiness of this song.
Furthermore, along with the addicting bass riff and bluesy guitar solo from Jeff Beck, Rimes and Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas rise to the song’s proverbial gauntlet with a rousing performance where they match each other’s intensity phrase for phrase, which all culminates into a truly riveting listening experience. - Leeann Ward
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an artist’s entire “reason to be” shift so dramatically over the course of one career. When Rimes first surfaced, the novelty was she was a young girl with amazing pipes who could belt out classics past and present. Her success was based on the very opposite of song interpretation, with the focus being completely on the singer – “Wow, can you believe a little girl just hit that note!” The songs were incidental, and usually better interpreted by other artists in years gone by. In that sense, she foreshadowed what would make most of the “American Idol” also-rans popular while on the show, but irrelevant once they were voted off.
“Who We Really Are” perfectly illustrates how she’s become something else entirely: a subtle, nuanced singer who gets out of the song’s way, allowing the writing to take center stage. This only works if a singer is able to pick (or write) great material in the first place, and is able to communicate the song’s meaning in a way that is clarifying for the listener. She succeeds wildly here, earning what might be the greatest compliment a singer can get when recording outside material: It sounds like she wrote it. - Kevin John Coyne
What music fan hasn’t had this experience? You heard a song as a kid, fell in love with the feeling and melody, grew up ten years and suddenly realized, “Oh; this is about heroin addiction.”
That’s not quite Rimes’s character here, thankfully. But in one of the most upbeat admissions of wrongdoing since “Dang Me,” she does fess up to her share of cheating and drinking, all while bopping around to a beat so groovy that they had to give it a 50-second solo at the top of the track. Turns out Rimes used to find the classic Hank and Merle weepers pretty groovy, too – until she started living through them.
But you can’t keep a good girl down: even after she’s driven away her man, then alienated everyone else trying to drink away her shame, she manages to get her act together, coming full circle to a new love who helps set her free, just like in the oughta-be classic “Cowboy Take Me Away.” Getting older and wiser can mean seeing more of the darkness in the world, Rimes seems to acknowledge – but if you hold out for it, you get see more of the light, too. - Dan Milliken
Written by LeAnn Rimes, Darrell Brown & Dan Wilson
The most obvious choice LeAnn Rimes could have made for her performance on “God Takes Care of Your Kind” would have been a vengeful, “woman scorned” act, turning the song into a tale of fiery accusations and Old Testament style retribution. But Rimes has spent her last four albums avoiding those obvious choices that most of her contemporaries likely would – and far too often do – make. What makes the final kiss-off of “God Takes Care of Your Kind” so cutting isn’t the rusty barbs knotted in its lyrics but the fact that Rimes’ delivery couldn’t be more casual in its dismissal.
She references deep betrayal in the chorus (“I let you in where I never let anyone/You cut me open just to watch the blood run,” for those wondering if modern country songs could still trade in sexually loaded metaphors). But, drawling out her lines over a slinky rhythm section, she doesn’t sound the least bit pressed by any of it. Instead, she’s relaxed and confident, resting easy in the blessed assurance that the Good Lord has her back. - Jonathan Keefe
Written by Darrell Brown, LeAnn Rimes and Dean Sheremet
Amidst all the astute, specific storytelling on Spitfire, “A Waste is a Terrible Thing to Mind” sticks out for its broad strokes of emotion. There’s no vivid thought process to trace here; it’s just a lament about the cost of foolishly ignoring love, built around a turn-of-phrase that sits dangerously close to contrived.
But its craft is elsewhere: Like the potent country song it recalls, it drowns the narrative in emotion – through the swell of the melody, the cry of the steel guitar, the guilt in Rimes’ voice – until the words becomes an accessory. Rimes plays into this effect with a performance that’s as stirring as the arrangement it complements, restrained and self-loathing all at once. If Spitfire is an indication of the vision-driven artist we weren’t sure Rimes could become, “A Waste is a Terrible Thing to Mind” is a reminder of the artist whose voice could always light fire and relevance under the most classically constructed country songs. - Tara Seetharam
Written by David Baerwald, Darrell Brown and LeAnn Rimes
The comfortingly reliable George Strait mixes it up a bit during his 1992-1993 run of singles with a cover of a beloved classic, hardcore country, a surprising country rocker, and a sweet love song for good measure.
Strait ably tackles the Hank Williams classic. He doesn't surpass the original, but it's cool that he brought the song back in 1992. Imagine if somebody tried to do that now.
This downbeat single finds a man searching for answers for why is lady is leaving him and he knows he'll find it from the example of his dad, because he's so much like him. In a clever twist, however, he doesn't ask his dad, but rather, asks his mom: “But if I'm so much like my dad, there must've been times you felt her way. So, tell me word for word what he said that always made you stay.”
It's always seemed counterintuitive for a song that begins with “When you hear twin fiddles and a steel guitar” to rock as hard as this song does, but the fact is that it's as catchy and infectious as all get-out, so almost all is forgiven.
I would have liked to have been listening to country music when this song was released as a single, as I'm sure it would have surprised me to hear Strait singing something sounding quite like this. The song promoting the dissolution of a relationship with no regrets is country, with a little groove and an over all chill vibe.
This song, however, portrays a lost relationship rife with regret. Strait's performance, supported by strains of lonely steel, fully captures the pain of losing a good love due to one's own negligence.
The very sad news that Mindy McCready has taken her own life has been reported by several sources. Our hearts go out to her family and those close to her, especially her two young children.
Rather than focus on her troubled life, it seems most fitting to acknowledge this tragedy by spotlighting the bright spots in her life, particularly her musical talents. While her music career is sparse compared to others who’ve been in the business as long as she has, her out put is noteworthy all the same.
In 2010, she released an album that went largely unnoticed, but I’m Still Here was a strong set of songs that found McCready in fine voice. Included on the well produced project was a cover of Garth Brooks’ “The Dance,” along with some gems such as the regretful “Wrong Again,” the wistful “By Her Side,” and the stormy “I Want a Man.”
Perhaps the most fitting tribute that Country Universe can pay to Mindy is the fact that the origins of our Six Pack series began with her music. Kevin said it best, in May of 2008, when he wrote, “Mindy McCready made some great music back in her day, and I look forward to hearing more from her. Quite frankly, she deserves to be known by her work, not her personal life. Check out these six solid moments from her career and you’ll see what I mean.”
So, may we all follow Kevin’s advice, and know Mindy McCready for her work, not her personal life.
I know that we’d love to send each of you a Christmas card from us, but since we can’t, here is a playlist of Christmas songs to enjoy as a stand-in, which is probably better than any card we could send anyway.
These songs are hand-picked by me as songs that I find particularly relaxing, yet still entertaining, during the chaos of the Christmas season. I hope you enjoy.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from the Country Universe staff.
In 2007, a little over five years ago, I discovered Country Universe. At that point in my relationship with mainstream country music, I had been a diehard fan for over ten years, but was realizing that I was starting to feel less content with Top 40 country radio.
In my effort to expand beyond the radio, but still stay connected to country music, I eagerly discovered the world of music blogs. As it happened, the very first country music blog that captured my attention beyond a cursory look was Country Universe. At the time, Kevin was the sole writer and he had been running the blog for three years prior to my discovery of it.
As I remember it, the first article that I happened upon was Kevin’s A Conversation with Pam Tillis. I was inordinately impressed by their easy exchange and Kevin’s obvious respect for and knowledge of his interviewee. As the title suggests, however, it was much more than just an interview, but rather, a warm, in-depth conversation.
To make a sort of long story short, my respect for Kevin’s blog only increased as I combed through the Country Universe archives while also keeping up with the updated content. As I followed along, what struck me the most was that while it was clear that Kevin had no interest in sensationalizing, he felt a responsibility to sometimes tackle difficult and even controversial topics regarding the landscape of country music.
One such article, Say What? — John Rich, specifically caught my attention, as it discussed a weighty topic with a perspective that was not especially popular among the predominantly conservative country music fans at the time. For me, it was intriguing and refreshing to read such an intelligent, unexpected perspective.
So, imagine my fright and delight when Kevin invited me to join him here in early 2008. My first big article was the very first installment of the Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists feature that kicked off with my favorite artist, Vince Gill. The article of mine that I think of with the most fondness, however, is my interview with Joey+Rory, which was only thanks to their warmth and openness.
Since my time with Country Universe, we’ve had some writers come and go, but I am very proud of the writers that we have now. The absolute best part of being a part of Country Universe is that I am a fan. I am fortunate to genuinely enjoy the writing of Kevin, Dan, Tara, Ben, Jonathan and Sam. Even more importantly, I am a fan of their voices, both as writers and behind the scenes of Country Universe. What’s more, even if my name wasn’t on the list of writers, I would be a devoted reader of the site.
And, finally, it cannot be stressed enough that the richest part of Country Universe as a whole is the thoughtful and passionate comments of you, our readers. Without all of you, this experience would surely be much less fun and engaging. So, thank you for being a part of
“(Who Says) You Can't Have It All” is not just an average song of lost love. Rather, the loss translates into a certain resolution from a man who is the lord and master of his proverbial castle that has turned into nothing more than a lonely room with “a ceiling, a floor and four walls”, full of pictures and memories of the broken past.
From the first strains of the mournful fiddle, we can almost be sure that we will be treated to a pure country song. What's more, Alan Jackson's equally forlorn voice singing the opening lyrics, “A stark naked light bulb hangs over my head/ There's one lonely pillow on my double bed”, serves as confirmation that we're in for 3 minutes and 30 seconds of a deliciously straight-up country weeper that turns out to be one of Jackson's most satisfying singles yet.
It’s rare that the melody of a song’s verses is just about as memorable and catchy as its chorus, but such is the case with George Strait’s “It Ain’t Cool to be Crazy About You.” Just hearing the first strains of the simple piano intro makes it almost impossible to get the tune out of your head once it’s there. What’s more, words like “suave” and “debonair” make it nearly irresistible to sing along with.
However, There’s more to this established earworm than a memorable tune. Strait adeptly portrays the imbalance of a relationship where he is much more invested than the woman happens to be. While he knows he’s being jerked around by her, he can’t help but be crazy about her anyway.
While it almost seems like just a catchy ditty on the surface, Strait’s delivery of a mix of sadness and regret, with a hint of frustration, turns this song into something substantive with a relatable scenario.
One of the defining aspects of Shania Twain’s music has been her propensity for inspiring women to feel as though they have a right to express themselves.
Her empowering attitude hasn’t been expressed through songs of revenge or violence, but rather, through straightforward, no-nonsense lyrics that simply cut to the point with humor and clever turns of phrase.
With some playfulness, “That Don’t Impress Me Much” follows in this no-nonsense tradition by making it clear that it takes more than a high IQ, good looks or a fancy car to truly impress this woman. Along with the straight talk, we also hear traces of amusement throughout the song, which is one of the signature endearing qualities of Twain’s music.
While the Brad Pitt reference threatens to date this somewhat quirky single, it is catchy, sing-able and one of Twain’s more country-sounding efforts.
Written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Shania Twain
1999 | Peak: #7 (U.S.); #3 (U.K.); #2 (Australia)
After scoring with two remixed hit ballads, Twain’s first uptempo pop crossover hit required a lot more work under the hood. While the vocal track remained the same, the backing music is completely reinvented.
The synthesizer-drenched dance mix was dated even in 1999, though it gave the song a campy feel that matched the over-the-top video well. It also made the song very appealing for international audiences. It’s not as good as the original mix, but it does lay the groundwork for the ambitious Up! project, which uses synths a lot more effectively. – KJC
There really isn’t anything much more sad or upsetting in a relationship than cold, awkward silence. Things left unsaid or the silence after things that shouldn’t have been said can create what seems like an impenetrable, cold wall.
In his twelfth single, Alan Jackson expertly captures the forlornness of being in just such a situation. With crying steel and mournful vocals, “Tonight I Climbed the Wall” sounds like a perfect country song. Except, there’s a happy ending where, in the end, humility saves the day and the wall of silence is climbed. Ultimately, a song that manages to be both mournful and hopeful makes for an even more perfect country song.
Peaking at #4, “Tonight I Climbed the Wall” may not be one of Jackson’s signature hits, but its quality makes it one of his best.