To recognize the impact that Alabama has had on modern country music, you could consider their millions of albums sold, their hundreds of awards, their many #1 songs or their induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. You could also look at how the boys from Fort Payne, Ala. have the distinction of bringing something entirely new into country music.
Prior to Alabama, country music was predominantly a land of solo acts, with the occasional superstar duos (Conway & Loretta, George & Tammy) or backing bands (The Strangers, The Buckaroos) thrown in for good measure. Sure, there were plenty of vocal groups (Statler Brothers, Oak Ridge Boys), but actual bands, who played their own instruments, were few and far between in country music. It took Alabama to break down that particular barrier, and they paved the way for groups like Zac Brown Band, Diamond Rio, Eli Young Band and others.
Alabama is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a reunion tour and a couple of well-deserved tribute albums. The tributes are quite different, with one being done under the direction of the band, and the other a completely independent effort.
Alabama & Friends, featuring many of today’s leading country stars, comes off as less of a tribute album and more of an Alabama-themed celebrity karaoke night. Many of the songs have very similar arrangements to the originals, and even include Randy Owen, Jeff Cook and Teddy Gentry on lead and harmony vocals.
Many of the memorable elements from the original songs are still present. The fiddle breakdown in “Tennessee River” (with Jason Aldean), the tempo changes in “My Home’s in Alabama” (with Jamey Johnson) – they’re all present and accounted for. The songs that stick close to the originals aren’t necessarily bad. Luke Bryan, for instance, has plenty of flaws as a country singer, but his vocal abilities are not in question, so his version of “Love in the First Degree” is solid. The same could be said of Jason Aldean’s take on “Tennessee River” and Toby Keith’s “She and I.” There’s nothing wrong with them, but fans who love the Alabama originals might think the new ones are a bit too by-the-book.
There are a few instances where the guest singers step outside the box and add more of their own personality to the recording. Trisha Yearwood, the only female voice on the project, does a lovely job on “Forever’s as Far as I’ll Go,” and “Lady Down on Love” by Kenny Chesney stands among his best vocal performances. The same can’t be said of Florida Georgia Line, who takes “I’m in a Hurry (and Don’t Know Why),” adds their usual amount of noise and clutter to the mix, and makes it sound like every other Florida Georgia Line song ever recorded. While it’s a rare opportunity to hear both Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley sing lead vocals, it raises the issue of whether or not they’ve already run out of original ideas.
Alabama recorded two songs for the first time in 11 years, but they’re the weakest songs on the album. For a band that was one of the first to successfully blend country music with amped-up Southern rock, “That’s How I Was Raised” and “All American” are low-energy, generic rah-rah country disappointments.
Various Artists High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama
High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama, is available from Lightning Rod Records and has a collection of Americana/Red Dirt/indie all-stars doing their takes on Alabama hits. There is some overlap with the Alabama & Friends, but these versions have a bit more of an original feel. “Why Lady Why” gets transformed into a smoldering soul tune by JD McPherson, while Jason Isbell and John Paul White of The Civil Wars completely reinvent “Old Flame.” The Turnpike Troubadours and Shonna Tucker provide a spark with “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” and “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler),” respectively. While neither version is light years from the original, they add energy to a project that leans heavily toward slow and reflective songs.
Two of Alabama’s love songs are recast as duets. While it’s startling to hear Todd Snider as a romantic balladeer instead of a smart-ass hippie folk singer, his voice never quite meshes with Elizabeth Cook on “Feels So Right.” Wade Bowen and Brandy Clark’s duet on “Love in the First Degree” is excellent, however, and raises the anticipation level for Clark’s debut album.
Not every experiment is a success. Once again, “I’m in a Hurry” gets short shrift, as Jessica Lea Mayfield turns it into a funereal dirge. “Lady Down on Love” just does not work as a bluegrass/spoken word ballad, as evidenced by Bob Schneider & The Texas Bluegrass Massacre with Ray Benson. Jason Boland & The Stragglers’ take on “Mountain Music” is fine, but the insistence of aping the original, from the spoken-word intro to the guest vocals from a couple of the Stragglers à la Cook and Gentry is a little cheesy.
It’s a testament to Alabama’s far-reaching appeal that artists as different as Jason Isbell and Jason Aldean would want to sing their songs. Whether it’s a note-for-note recreation or a completely new interpretation of their hit songs, there is something in these two albums to please any Alabama fan.
Bear in mind that Blake Shelton isn’t just another country singer. He is the reigning Male Vocalist of the Year for both the ACM and CMA Awards, as well as the CMA Entertainer of the Year. Due to his position as a judge on “The Voice,” he is one of the most recognizable country stars around. Therefore, his new album Based on a True Story… isn’t just another album release. It’s an event. It’s a highly anticipated occasion. So how does Shelton kick off this record?
Backwoods, legit, don’t take no s*** Chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit.
Those words of wisdom come from “Boys ‘Round Here,” the opening track and one of the worst country songs of recent memory, even by the relative low standards of country-rap. Sexist, crude and jam-packed with country stereotypes, it’s an embarrassment to everyone involved, including Shelton, the songwriters (Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson and Craig Wiseman) the Pistol Annies who sing background vocals and even the guy who says “red red red red red red red red redneck.”
That’s the low-water mark for the album, though it’s certainly a harbinger for what comes after. For all the references to country songs and country living scattered throughout, it’s largely pop music, with some R&B and adult contemporary elements thrown in the mix. In other words, it’s an ideal country album for people who like Shelton as a famous personality but don’t really care for country music. The two most traditional-sounding songs (as well as two of the best songs) are available in the download- only deluxe version, so anyone who wants to avoid anything sounding like actual country music can easily do so.
There are plenty of other country singers who are employing pop sounds to reach a wider audience, so Shelton isn’t alone in that regard. The problem with True Story is that the songs are so pedestrian and unmemorable. “Sure Be Cool if You Did” and “My Eyes” are essentially the same song about picking up a woman, though at least the cheesy pickup lines are different. “Small Town Big Time” is essentially the same song as half of Jason Aldean’s back catalog – the bad half – with some Auto-Tuned verses thrown in for
“Country on the Radio” deserves special mention because it attempts to justify all of the hokey, redneck-centric songs that have clogged up the country charts for the last few years. Why are they all about dirt roads, pretty girls on tailgates and homemade wine? Because that’s how country folks roll, of course. That’s not exactly a compliment – country songs are so simplistic and shallow because country people really are that simplistic and shallow.
“I Still Got a Finger” is one of the few instances where the feisty Blake Shelton of old – before he became famous outside of country music circles – makes an appearance. Still, it has the feel of being forced, as if it was made to highlight Shelton’s smartass, uncensored Twitter personality without being too rude for a large audience.
“Grandaddy’s Gun,” written by Atkins, Davidson, and Bobby Pinson, is one of the highlights of True Story. Without pushing one side of the gun control debate like an Aaron Lewis or Charlie Daniels would do, Shelton sings about the sentimental value of an old battered shotgun and demonstrates that he is still an outstanding country singer when he wants to be. He does the same on “Mine Would Be You” from the dependable Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Deric Ruttan.
Shelton infamously said in his “old farts and jackasses” interview that kids don’t want to listen to their grandpa’s music and that country music has to evolve in order to survive. If that’s true, then this is the evolution of country music. It’s slick and mainstream-friendly, with Top 40 appeal. It features pop songs about how wonderful country living is. It’s occasionally raucous, but not enough to offend a focus group. It has some traditional country elements, but those are on album tracks that can easily be skipped over or not downloaded. If you happen to remember the great Blake Shelton songs like “Ol’ Red” and “Austin,” you’re clearly too old for this new country music.
With all the excellent releases that have come out this fall, it would be a shame to have one of the year’s best albums get overlooked.
Tell the current crop of current country music hitmakers to come up with a song based on the title “Gettin’ Down on the Mountain,” and you’d probably end up with a bunch of party anthems about kicking back on the weekend with your girl, your pickup truck and a 12-pack. Give the same title to Corb Lund, and he comes up with a retreat into self-reliance and solitude while an oil shortage leads to gridlock, the devaluation of paper currency, widespread hunger and an eventual and total breakdown of society itself. And with a catchy chorus, too.
In other words, don’t expect a lot of songs about girls dancing on tailgates on Lund’s albums. Outlaws, cowboys (the real ones), goth chicks and cows are much more likely to make an appearance on his latest album, Cabin Fever. Where so many current country songs fail to sound the least bit original (or country, for that matter), it’s refreshing to have someone like Lund come around and blatantly ignore any self-imposed restraints currently infecting the genre.
Lund and his band, the Hurtin’ Albertans, keep things sounding country for the most part. “Cows Around” is a lively Western swing tune that can double as an introductory course to the bovine family, and “Drink It Like You Mean It” is a similarly fun honky-tonker. Elsewhere, the band veers off into rockabilly (the campy “Gothest Girl I Can”), blues (“Dig Gravedigger Dig”) or surf rock (“Mein Deutsches Motorrad”).
Some of Lund’s songs can be so out in left field that when he delivers a sincere lyric, it can be almost disconcerting. “September” is a heartbreaking plea from one about to be left behind in a relationship, based on the fact that the simple country life doesn’t hold enough excitement for everyone. “One Left in the Chamber” goes down an even darker path, where a lifetime of regrets finally boils over. They serve as a reminder that while Lund can create some truly absurd characters and situations in his lyrics, he can’t be written off as a comedic lightweight.
As actual country music becomes harder and harder to find through mainstream sources, fans will have to turn increasingly to left-field sources for their fix. Fortunately, discovering Corb Lund is a trip worth taking.
t/uploads/2012/07/Carrie-Underwood-Blown-Away-Single-150×150.png” alt=”" width=”150″ height=”150″ />Four albums into her career, Carrie Underwood’s career growth has been fairly stunning.
It’s hard to imagine that the talent-show winner who sang “Jesus Take the Wheel” would morph into a fully fledged pop superstar with speaker-rattling pop-rock songs like “Good Girl” and “Blown Away.”
While the evolution has been fascinating to watch, the problem is that someone who was thought of as the next female country superstar has effectively left country music behind and moved on to bigger things, and it’s a loss for the genre.
“Blown Away,” Underwood’s new single, has some of the most interesting lyrics she’s had to work with in some time, courtesy of writers Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins. It borrows a little from the Miranda Lambert songbook, where an abusive father is made to account for his sins with death by tornado. While it’s a bit more passive than a Lambert song (she would have shot the SOB a few times before letting the twister carry him away), there is a satisfying sense of Old Testament-style vengeance to it.
Many of the main story elements are absent – the age of the narrator, exactly what the father did that was so awful – but there’s still plenty create some vivid imagery. Much like Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” never reveals the actual fate of the mother, “Blown Away” lets listeners fill in their own details.
As noted though, this is not being sung by Carrie Underwood, Country Singer. Instead, this is Carrie Underwood, International Pop Diva, and the song is glitzed up and glossed over to make it pop radio-ready. It’s been so thoroughly produced and sanitized that there isn’t a trace of a country song left in “Blown Away.” There have been “country” remixes of Kelly Clarkson singles that sound more traditional than this one.
The frustrating thing is that the gloss is so uncalled for. The altered vocals, the bombastic instrumentation, those things just take away from the vocals. It’s all well and good if the singer is Katy Perry or Ke$ha, as they need all the help they can get. But Carrie Underwood? Aside from a few impressive and effortless high notes that serve as a reminder of her capabilities, her vocal abilities are effectively buried.
Pop music today is very restrictive – possibly more so than country music – and a certain type of sound is needed to get significant airplay. So if the idea behind the song was to make Underwood sound like every other pop singer out there, then it’s a success. The downside, though, is that everything that made her special in the first place is getting lost in the process.
From Strait’s strongest and best Christmas album, his acoustic country version of “We Three Kings” is both beautifully arranged and reverently sung.
Sam’s Pick: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – While “We Three Kings” probably was not written with the banjo and accordion in hand, the Dirt Band does an admirable job of Americana-izing it. After falling in love with this version, I can never get used to the glacial pace of the more traditional takes of the song.
To be honest, this isn’t actually one of my favorite Christmas songs. Dwight Yoakam’s rhythmic version, however, is just funky enough for me to focus without getting bored.
Sam’s Pick: Raul Malo
If there is anyone in Nashville who can wring out every drop of emotion from this most bittersweet of Christmas songs, it is Raul Malo. Armed with just his guitar and his voice, Malo’s rendition is guaranteed to touch anyone who’s spending the holidays apart from loved ones. This video was recorded as a tribute to soldiers returning from the war in Iraq, making the song even more poignant.
A search of my iTunes indicates that I like many versions of this song, but the one that stands out the most to me is from a compilation called Christmas Trail by Wylie Gustafson and Kelly Willis. The mix of rootsy production, Willis’ twang and Gustafson’s Orbison-like harmony is impossible to resist.
Sam’s Pick: Ryan Shupe and the RubberBand
It’s hard to find a Christmas album that doesn’t have a version of “Away in the Manger,” but this may be the only reggae-grass version in existence. Shupe, a Utah-based musician, had a little mainstream success with an album on Capitol in 2005, but the RubberBand continues to record and tour to this day.
This fiery version does what this song is meant to do; it puts me in a festive mood. I love the jaunty, jazzy production and Malo leans into the song as intensely as he does any song that he sings.
Sam’s Pick: Crash Test Dummies
Or “Scary Jingle Bells,” as my kids call it. Leave it to this quirky Canadian folk group to turn a joyous, bouncy song like this into an accordion-driven battle dirge. Thanks to Brad Roberts, who’s one of the few people who can make Trace Adkins sound like a castrato, this version of “Jingle Bells” sounds more like a slaying song than a sleighing song.
Along with all the other traditions that come with Christmas time – watching your favorite TV specials, getting together with family on Christmas Day, wondering how you ever lived without a pre-lit Christmas tree - one of the best ones involves breaking out the collection of Christmas music.
As a kid, it meant that the Bing Crosby and The Chipmunks Christmas albums make their way out of the buffet draw and take up a month-long residence on my mom’s stereo. Now, it means flipping over to my Christmas songs playlist on iTunes, where Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakam and The Chieftains all are a part of the family’s Christmas soundtrack.
Seeing as how Christmas has more beloved songs than any other holiday around, Leeann Ward and I have put together a list of some of their favorite renditions of classic holiday songs. Feel free to add your own personal favorites in the comments section.
Song #1: Twelve Days of Christmas
Leeann: John Denver and the Muppets
Not a particularly high brow pick, but neither is this Christmas classic anyway. The juxtaposition of Denver’s straight delivery and the Muppets’ goofiness is especially delightful. What’s more, the way Miss Piggy revels in making the typically drawn out “Five golden rings” line even longer than usual is somehow endearing.
Sam: Bela Fleck & the Flecktones
As fun as the song is, even the merriest of people get a little tired of it by the time it gets around to the leaping lords and the dancing ladies. Fleck and company decide to ratchet up the degree of difficulty by performing each day in a different key and a different time signature — AND include some Tuvan throat singing to boot.
Though his career lasted about two years and ended tragically more than 50 years ago, Buddy Holly continues to impact and influence the music world. Part of it is his mystique: unlike many of his contemporaries, Holly never grew old, never had a scandal derail his career and never found himself wasting away on some oldies circuit. He’s the eternally young, energetic, slightly geeky-looking rock & roller with the hiccup in his voice and a Fender Stratocaster in his hands.
Mystique only goes so far, though. Holly left behind a strong collection of songs that have aged extremely well – mainly because they’re constantly being reinvented. His songs have been covered by hundreds of singers, across every music genre imaginable. Just this year alone, in commemoration of his 75th birthday, Buddy Holly tribute albums have featured both of the surviving Beatles, Lyle Lovett, Florence + The Machine, My Morning Jacket, Cee Lo Green and Justin Townes Earle.
Add to that mix Words of Love: Songs of Buddy Holly by Nashville’s Paul Burch. Much like the way Holly’s music has a timeless quality, Burch’s combination of classic country, blues and rock & roll has its roots in the 1950s and ’60s but never sounds dated. Beginning with 1998′s Pan-American Flash through 2009′s Still Your Man, Burch has released a series of critically acclaimed albums and recorded with luminaries such as Ralph Stanley and Mark Knopfler.
Burch’s admiration of Holly comes from both the love of his music and an appreciation for what he managed to accomplish in the short time he recorded.
“Holly was the arranger, the producer, the writer, the rhythm guitar player, the singer and the lead guitar player,” Burch says. “He balanced all that at the age of 22 and has at least 20 songs that everybody knows, being in the business for about two years before he was killed. Like him or not, you just don’t come across an artist like that very much.”
Burch says that he first heard Buddy Holly’s music on the “American Graffiti” soundtrack, and as he got more involved with rock & roll, the appreciation for Holly grew.
“My voice is pitched near his, so it’s easy for me to sing,” he says. “But I find that of all the rock & rollers that I adored growing up, Holly’s music is something that I can sing now that I’m older. The words are good, the chords are good, the songs are good, but they’re just very slightly underdeveloped.”
He attributes that to Holly’s producer, Norman Petty, who was a pop producer and didn’t have the same rock and R&B sensibilities that Holly had. As a result, the songs are developed enough for Holly to become successful, but they also allow for many interpretations. Burch, for instance, adds fiddle and accordion to the Holly classic “Rave On!” to give it a Cajun feel.
“You can do anything with them because they’re great songs,” Burch says.
Words of Love wasn’t intended to be a full-fledged album; Burch and members of his band, The WPA Ballclub, went into the studio just to record a Holly song, possibly as a single. In that regard, it didn’t vary from the type of recording that Burch and the band normally do.
“Recording for us is fun, and we just do it on a semi-regular basis,” he explains. “Often, I’ll bring in various incarnations of the band together just to get us on tape, to make sure we had a record of what we sound like.
“For me, that’s a healthy way to approach recording,” he adds. “There’s something about [recording] where I allow it to be a bit sprawling, so I don’t truncate the process.”
Burch initially went into the studio with his usual touring band, drummer Marty Lynds and bassist Jim Gray, and in the span of a couple of hours, they had recorded four Holly songs, all on the first or second take. He then brought in some of the band members who contribute to Burch’s records but don’t usually tour with him, and the same thing happened.
“Every time we went into the studio, we’d record four or five songs,” he says.
Burch says that Words of Love was not meant to be a Holly “best-of” album. Along with familiar Holly hits like “Peggy Sue” and “Think It Over,” there are lesser-known gems like “Blue Days, Black Nights” and “Midnight Shift.” With the WPA Ballclub at the top of its game (the band in its various incarnations also includes Jen Gunderman on accordion, Fats Kaplin on fiddle, Dennis Crouch on upright bass and Tommy Perkinson on drums) and a bunch of great songs, it’s a cohesive album that pays tribute to a talented artist but still fits nicely into Burch’s catalog.
As it was such an impromptu album – Burch didn’t even use lyric sheets on any of the songs – there was little advance planning done. When he and the band did listen to Holly recordings, they shied away from the familiar finished takes and turned to rarer live recordings or rehearsals. Those performances showed more grit than Holly was able to generate in the studio.
“Holly was far ahead of his time in thinking of a studio as a place to make a unique-sounding recording, different from how you would perform it on stage,” Burch says. “On stage, The Crickets were a tough, lean rock & roll band, but in the studio they could be a little more delicate, using boxes for drums or a celesta piano, which you can’t hear very well on stage.
“That was the one thing I wanted to do,” he adds. “Turn the bass and drums up whenever it was possible. It’s not always easy to do, because there’s so much wonderful delicacy to Holly’s music. But when it was possible to bring in some dirt, I tried to do that.”
In recording the songs, Burch was more concerned about capturing the feel of the songs than staying true to the technical aspects of Holly’s music. He played a Stratocaster on some tracks, like Holly did, but he didn’t feel obliged to using it on every song, He didn’t stick to Holly’s arrangements, either. Burch’s version of “Not Fade Away,” for instance, has no chord changes. He came up with that idea after listening to a rehearsal take of Holly and his drummer, Jerry Allison, playing Bo Diddley’s “Mona.”
“It was just so cool to hear a loud acoustic guitar and a loud drum,” Burch says. “There were no vocals; they were just getting into a groove. I thought about writing something off of it, but then I thought “Not Fade Away” doesn’t need those chord changes.”
Words of Love represents not only a tribute to one of Burch’s heroes, it also represents a turning point in his career, though even he isn’t entirely sure what is coming next.
“It feels like the band and myself are turning a very positive corner,” he explains. “I’m quite satisfied with the last couple records, and I think we’re starting to achieve some things live which are quite interesting. So I thought that before we go off in another direction that’s quite different from our other records, it would be nice to put a cap on that and do an album of standards. It’s an end of the beginning and the beginning of the next part.
“It may not be that much of a change, but it feels like it has the potential to go into some interesting areas for us. We’ll just have to see.”