Author Archives: Leeann Ward

Country Universe Turns Eight: Leeann's Favorites

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

it all. Long live Country Universe.

Country Universe Turns Eight:

 

 

 

 

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Retro Single Review: Alan Jackson, "(Who Says) You Can't Have it All"

1993 | Peak: #4

“(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.

Written by Alan Jackson and Jim McBride

Grade: A

Next: Summertime Blues

Previous: Mercury Blues

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Retro Single Review: George Strait, “It Ain’t Cool to be Crazy About You”

1986 | Peak: #1

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.

Written by Dean Dillon and Royce Porter

Grade: A

Next: Ocean Front Property

Previous: Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her

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Retro Single Review: Shania Twain, “That Don’t Impress Me Much”

1998 | Peak: #8

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

Pop Version:

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

Grade: B

Next: Man! I Feel Like a Woman!

Previous: Honey, I’m Home

Country Mix:

Pop Mix:

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Retro Single Review: Alan Jackson, “Tonight I Climbed the Wall”

1993 | Peak: #4

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.

Written by Alan Jackson

Grade: A

Next: Chattahoochee

Previous: She’s Got the Rhythm (and I Got the Blues)

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Twelve Songs of Christmas: Day 12

Song #12: O Holy Night

Sam’s Pick:  John Berry

If this list has shown anything, it’s that I’m partial to a good reworking of a Christmas standard – something that stands out from the hundreds of other versions.

But for “O Holy Night,” there is nothing like Berry’s simple, traditional, note-perfect version. It’s a particular favorite among golden-voiced singers like Josh Groban and Andrea Bocelli, but Berry’s is the gold standard.

Leeann’s Pick: Martina McBride

This song is meant to be powerfully sung, even belted. Who better to fulfill this requirement than Martina McBride? On my favorite Christmas song, McBride doesn’t disappoint.

BONUS PICKS:

Jonathan Keefe: John Berry

I have to second Sam’s mention of John Berry’s rendition of this song. Among the religious-themed Christmas standards, “O Holy Night” is far away my favorite, thanks to its flawless construction and evocative melody. The problem with the song, though, is that melody and the dramatic crescendo in the refrain both make it real, real easy to oversing. Right, Celine?

Berry, who is absolutely one of the most gifted and underrated singers in country music’s rich history of gifted and underrated singers, takes a far more low-key approach to the song, letting the purity and warmth of his vocal tone and the soulfulness of his slow vibrato convey a real sense of reverence for the song’s message and narrative.

On a song that’s too often undone by bombastic performances and arrangements, Berry’s approach is a gift that keeps on giving.

Kevin Coyne: Carrie Underwood

For the same reason Berry and McBride are mentioned above. For me, Carrie Underwood has the most powerful voice out there, able to alternate between subtlety and raw power with ease.

It seems only fitting that a talent on loan from God should sing about the birth of His son so beautifully.

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Twelve Songs of Christmas: Day 10

Song #10: Christmas Time’s A-Coming

Sam’s Pick: Peter Rowan

Admittedly, this is a much more recent song that some of the other songs we’ve covered. But this song, written by Tex Logan, has become a standard in the bluegrass and country world. I heard this version from Peter Rowan on a Sugar Hill Christmas sampler album many years ago, and it’s still my favorite. It’s a very relaxed, low-key version, but it still captures the joy of coming home for the holidays.

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Leeann’s Pick: Sammy Kershaw

There are a few fun recordings of this song, but my favorite is Sammy Kershaw’s Cajun flavored version. As the song is meant to be, it’s fun and bright and still holds up today despite not having a traditional production.

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Twelve Songs of Christmas: Day Eight

Song #8: Joy to the World

Sam’s Pick: Patty Loveless

Loveless’  Bluegrass and White Snow is one of the best Christmas albums around and a staple of my holiday soundtrack. This song boasts background vocals from Jon Randall and Emmylou Harris, which proves that if you want to make a great song even better, get Emmylou to sing on it.

Leeann’s Pick: Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors

I am not familiar with Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors outside of the Christmas album on which this song can be found, but I can say that the album is a mix of fun and warmth and this song is just one example of that.

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Twelve Songs of Christmas: Day Six

Song #6: Silent Night

Sam’s Pick: Cherish the Ladies

In my opinion, “Silent Night” is the most beautiful of all Christmas carols. Here, the traditional Celtic band does a lovely interpretation of it, sung in both English and Gaelic. Former lead singer Heidi Talbot has a simply stunning voice, and the Ladies’ On Christmas Night is a worthwhile purchase for anyone who likes and few jigs and reels mixed in with their Christmas standards.

Leeann’s Pick: House of Heroes

I happened upon this version thanks to Amazon’s 25 Days of free Christmas downloads, but I don’t know anything about House of Heroes beyond this song. Incidentally, however, their rendition has turned out to be my favorite version of “Silent Night” because of the relaxed vibe. Being somewhat of an audiophile, I especially appreciate the crisp separation of the vocals and instruments of the production that becomes more evident as the track builds and progresses.

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Twelve Songs of Christmas: Day Four

Song #4: White Christmas

Sam’s Pick: Garth Brooks – For the ultimate version of this song, it’s hard to go wrong with Bing Crosby. But Garth’s jazzy, laid-back take on “White Christmas” is pretty excellent too. Fun fact: This song loses a lot of its charm once you’ve spent a Christmas night with your heart in your throat driving home after a blizzard but before the salt trucks have come out.

Leeann’s Pick: Bing Crosby

I’ve searched high and low for a superior version, but no one can top the ultimate version of “White Christmas”. It’s beautiful, it’s calming and it’s perfect.

BONUS PICK

Jonathan Keefe: Lari White

One of the reasons I’m not crazy about Christmas music is that so much of it ends up produced in the same vanilla, tasteful-to-a-fault kind of soft rock manner, and White’s rendition does have that problem. Fortunately, it does get points for a prominent steel guitar line and for having an over-the-top, campy choir kick in during the second verse.

But, more importantly, it’s also a showcase for White’s incomparable voice: In terms of power, range, control, and richness of tone, she’s easily one of the finest singers country music has ever been lucky enough to claim. The catastrophically poor taste of the “Wild at Heart” video pretty well killed her career, but her version of this holiday standard does still score her some seasonal recurrent airplay.

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