Four generous hits collections were released in 2010, each one chronicling the entire career of a contemporary country music star. Individually, each double-disc set serve as the most expansive and thorough compilation for each artist. Taken together, they tell the story of country music over the last twenty years.
Alan Jackson 34 Number Ones
In the late eighties, Randy Travis did something that no other country star had done before. He became the top-selling country artist by a wide margin without making any musical concessions to pop or rock. In doing so, he tore up the old playbook. Suddenly, you could be a multi-platinum country artists without the added benefit of top 40 radio or accolades from the rock and roll press.
Thus began contemporary country music, the new paradigm that reached its commercial peak in the nineties, but has never come close to receding to its earlier status as a niche genre. A crop of young stars surfaced in 1989 and 1990, each one of them staking a claim to be the Haggard, the Jones, the Willie, the Waylon of their generation. Out of all of them, none struck a more perfect balance between artistic credibility and commercial viability than Alan Jackson.
Simply put, he is the most significant singer and songwriter of the past quarter century. So it’s no surprise that out of all of the country stars who’ve compiled #1 hit collections, Jackson’s set is the best, both in terms of overall quality and effectiveness in summing up an entire career.
Fact is, radio’s played nearly everything Jackson’s sent their way, and he’s demonstrated remarkably good judgment over the past twenty years. The highest of the high points – “Here in the Real World”, “Don’t Rock the Jukebox”, “Chattahoochee”, “Gone Country”, “Where Were You”, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” – aren’t just great records from their time period. They’re accurate representations as well, little time capsules that show Jackson as being centrally relevant to the genre while he was also making great music.
Today, with critical acclaim and commercial success becoming increasingly divergent pathways, 34 Number Ones serves as a powerful reminder that one need not sacrifice quality for radio airplay. Of the new tracks, Jackson’s cover of “Ring of Fire” doesn’t quite measure up, It’s certainly a competent reading, but Jackson’s already a legend in his own right. Just listen to “As She’s Walking Away”, the duet with Zac Brown Band that serves at the set’s bonus 35th number one. His mere presence elevates the track into greatness.
Tim McGraw Number One Hits
Jackson’s ascent into superstardom came at the peak of the new traditionalist movement. Tim McGraw got in just under the buzzer, breaking through a year before Shania Twain shifted the course of country music to a distinctively more pop sound. He’s since been able to maintain stardom by going with the flow of these changes.
At his best, few have been better than Tim McGraw, but Number One Hits documents his bookend years as a follower of trends. It’s the songs on either end of his hit run than are the weakest. Whereas Jackson has flirted with banality once in a while, McGraw has openly embraced it. He became a mega-star by alternating shoehorning the five-hankie weepfest “Don’t Take the Girl” between novelty songs like “Indian Outlaw” and “Down on the Farm”, all of which reek of the hat act herd mentality that was heading out of style in 1994.
But McGraw used his clout from those early hits to get access to better material, and his albums soon demonstrated a song sense that was unrivaled among the other new acts of the time, most of whom quickly faded away as pop ascended in the genre. The best of his biggest singles came over the course of the next decade. Classics like “Just to See You Smile”, “Please Remember Me”, “Angry all the Time” and “Live Like You Were Dying” were among the best songs on the radio.
For a while there, he could get just about anything into the top fifteen, but this collection focuses only on the chart-toppers. So instead of fantastic gems like “Can’t Be Really Gone”, “One of These Days”, “Red Ragtop”, and “If You’re Reading This”, this set features quite a bit of forgettable fare that hasn’t aged well. They may have topped the charts, but that doesn’t make “Not a Moment Too Soon”, “She Never Lets it Go to Your Heart”, and the particularly abysmal “Southern Voice” worthy of inclusion in a best-of set.
If they were able to suspend the concept to include a questionable dance remix of the #8 chart hit “Indian Outlaw” and the mediocre new hit “Felt Good on My Lips”, they might as well have just been more generous with the track listing and released The Very Best of Tim McGraw. His music has been far more compelling than this collection shows.
Dixie Chicks The Essential Dixie Chicks
The explosive crossover success of Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, and Faith Hill was in full swing in 1998, which left traditionalists hungering for a superstar alternative. In waltzed the Dixie Chicks, with a combination of musical credibility, traditional roots, and youthful appeal that instantly made them the darlings of the format. Over the course of two albums – 1998′s Wide Open Spaces and 1999′s Fly – they dominated radio, retail and the awards circuit.
Tracks from those two albums combine for fourteen of the thirty tracks of The Essential Dixie Chicks. All of the biggest hits are here, but chart success wasn’t the only determination for inclusion. Thank God for that, as less impressive top ten hits like “Cold Day in July” and “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” are left off, with the far more compelling “Heartbreak Town” and “Sin Wagon” in their place.
As good as their first two albums were, it was the 2002 masterpiece Home that truly solidified them as artists for the ages. Released at the height of O Brother mania, the timing couldn’t have been better for this acoustic album. “Long Time Gone”, “Landslide”, and “Travelin’ Soldier” all went top two, and the album swept the country categories at the 2003 Grammy Awards.
And then, the bottom fell out. Poorly chosen words about the president quickly overshadowed Home, and the princesses of country radio suddenly became pariahs, taking the burgeoning roots movement down with them. Radio slamming its door shut is what makes a hit-centered Chicks compilation impossible, and Essential Dixie Chicks wisely chooses to give equal representation to Home and its follow-up, the California country Taking the Long Way.
An excellent job is done of selecting the best album cuts from both collections, an especially difficult task with the latter album. Sure, it won five Grammys and sold well, but the platinum single “Not Ready to Make Nice” was the only real hit. Thankfully, we’re treated to gems like “Top of the World” and “Truth No. 2″ from Home and “The Long Way Around”, “Easy Silence,” and “Lubbock or Leave It” from Taking the Long Way.
And while a case could be made for some great tracks left off – “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”, “More Love”, and “Voice Inside My Head” come to mind – everything that’s here is essential listening. Then again, the Chicks could have randomly picked any 30 songs from the four albums represented here and still ended up with a great collection of music, so high has their standard of excellence been all along. How many other superstar country artists could do the same?
Brad Paisley Hits Alive
If the Dixie Chicks best represent the last gasp of lofty aspiration in mainstream country music over the past twelve years, Brad Paisley best represents the mediocrity the genre was willing to settle for. Rising to fame around the same time as the Chicks, Paisley was similarly touted as a traditional savior for the increasingly pop-influenced genre.
And for more than ten years, he’s lived up to the traditionalist part, rarely flirting with crossover sounds. Much like Alan Jackson, Paisley’s sound hasn’t changed much over time. But unlike Jackson, Paisley’s point of view hasn’t changed much either. He’s been releasing antiseptic, mostly dull radio fodder for most of his career, getting regular radio play with an endless stream of interchangeable love songs and party anthems.
Hits Alive attempts to assess his work to date, and it takes an odd approach. A disc of studio hits is paired with a disc of live recordings of his hits. Figuring out the guiding principle in song selection is near impossible. Some of his signature hits – “I’m Gonna Miss Her”, “Letter to Me”, “Waitin’ on a Woman” – appear only in live form. Songs that practically beg to be livened up, like “Ticks”, “The World”, and “Celebrity” – are only here in their studio incarnations. Bizarrely, “Alcohol” and “Mud on the Tires”, are presented in both forms.
The double dipping means early hits like “Who Needs Pictures”, “Wrapped Around”, “Two People Fell in Love”, and “I Wish You’d Stay” are omitted entirely. That’s a shame, because they’re all better than his string of condescending and slightly misogynist love songs that do make the cut, the worst offenders being “The World” and the jaw-dropping “Little Moments”, the latter providing a list of endearing traits that would be insulting if he was singing about his child, let alone his partner.
Thankfully, many of his best moments are included, most notably “Whiskey Lullaby” and “When I Get Where I’m Going”, two hits that have gone on to become genre standards in the years since their release. Plus, the live disc brings some unexpected treats. “Time Warp” showcases his stunning instrumental talent, while the hits “Water” and “American Saturday Night” truly do come alive on stage, making them sound better here than they did on the radio.
Of the four collections, Paisley’s may be the least impressive, but it’s still a decent representation of one of country music’s last superstars, and it speaks volumes about the creative holding pattern that still paralyzes the genre. Unless the spiritual successors to Alan Jackson or the Dixie Chicks come along, Paisley’s might be as good as it’s gonna get on country radio.
This year, instead of writing about this year’s crop of Christmas projects individually, I’ve decided to round them up in one post in an effort to make sure I acknowledge all of them. Unless I’ve overlooked one, the only album that will be omitted from this roundup is Shelby Lynne’s Christmas album, which is super good/compelling and funky, so it deserves its own review and it will come as soon as I figure out how to write about it.
Let the fun begin!
Carter’s Chord, Christmas
As Toby Keith’s best discovery so far, Carter’s Chord is a talented sister duo that hasn’t yet gotten the success that they deserve. With only one digitally released studio album that has received criminally little attention, they’ve still managed to deliver a delightful 4-song EP that would be well worth adding to your Christmas collection.
All of the songs are well produced, with very tasteful country arrangements, but the standout track is the warm and bluesy “Snowed In.” Surprisingly, the lead vocal on “Up on the Housetop” could easily be mistaken for a Miranda Lambert performance.
Lady Antebellum, A Merry Little Christmas
Yes, since I typically don’t shop at Target, I made a special trip to purchase this exclusive 6-song EP. It was at least one-third worth the effort. Literally. “Their versions of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, “Blue Christmas” and “Let it Snow” are given nice, if not unremarkable, country leaning treatments while “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and “On This Winter’s Night” lean more toward R&B. “Silver Bells”, however, suffers from the generic pop production that Lady Antebellum all too often utilizes for their regular music.
Point of Grace, Home for the Holidays
For the last couple of years, Contemporary Christian group, Point of Grace, has attempted to make gains in the country market. They haven’t been successful, but they continue to try with the release of their fourth Christmas album (the third being a collection of their first two), Home for the Holidays. Their smooth harmonies are sweet but vibrant enough to stay out of the syrupy territory. The original “Candy Cane Lane” is laced with fiddle and steel guitar and, incidentally, is one of the stand out tracks on the album, along with the gorgeous “Emanuel.” Standards such as “Silver Bells”, “Little Drummer Boy”, and “Holly Jolly Christmas” are also treated to decidedly country arrangements and ably performed on the whole.
Mandy Barnett, Winter Wonderland
Mandy Barnett’s Cracker Barrel exclusive Christmas album is an unapologetic throwback to the Nashville sound of Yesteryear both in production and notable reverb affects. At this point, it’s unoriginal to compare her voice to Patsy Cline, but the similarity is pretty much irrefutable, so it’s no wonder that Barnett aptly capitalizes on the comparison and we, in turn, continue to make the connection. Ultimately, it’s a pleasant album, but more for background than intrigue.
Jason Michael Carroll, Christmas on the Farm
With Jason Michael Carroll’s chart success being somewhat spotty, it’s easy to forget that he possesses one of the top voices among the current country crop as he slips under the radar much of the time. Therefore, it’s the surprise of the season that his Christmas EP is one of the best Christmas projects of 2010. His talent gorgeously shines through most especially on the gently and beautifully sung arranged “Auld Lang Syne”, but on “Silent Night and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as well. “Joy to the World” is a rousing back porch pickin’-type affair that is ridiculously infectious. The title track is also upbeat, but is the lone contemporary produced song on the set. It wouldn’t sound like a typical Christmas song if not for the setting, but it’s fun, if not superfluous, nonetheless. If this EP is representative of Jason Michael Carroll at Christmas Time, more please!
Here we have one of the most gifted vocalists in the history of country music, searching in vain for her voice. The trend has been going on for some time now, and if this isn’t its apex, we’re in for a long and bumpy ride. Not since her days with Mercury has McEntire ever tried so hard to fit in with the current sound on country radio, and much like those early records, this trend-chasing set is both overprocessed and underdeveloped.
What can you say about a woman of McEntire’s age and stature covering Beyoncé? How can one take seriously her references to Twitter and “kicking it” with the guys? One one track, she talks about meeting an old man on the plane who is mourning Chelsea, the love of his life who has since passed on. She dreams about being “Somebody’s Chelsea.” How can a woman in her mid-fifties not have something substantial to add to a conversation with this man?
Everything takes place in the distant future here, and truth be told, this would be a pretty good Kellie Pickler album. But in adopting the voice of the younger generation of ladies, McEntire becomes the student when she should really be the teacher.
At her peak, McEntire gave voice to the everyday woman. On classics like “Only in My Mind”, “Whoever’s in New England”, and “Is There Life Out There”, she put into words what women were really thinking but were conditioned not to say.
Which is why when McEntire suddenly taps that vein in two of the album’s closing tracks, it’s like a sudden jolt to the system. “The Day She Got Divorced” is vivid and real, with lyrical imagery that would make Jeannie C. Riley proud. Just as good is the album’s beautiful closing track, “When You Have a Child,” where McEntire catalogs all of the conflicting emotions a mother feels from the time her child is born to when they’re leaving home.
You know why it works? Because McEntire has the life experience to back it up. It’s actually age-appropriate, and it’s tremendously powerful as a result. None of the younger artists she’s chasing the sound of could pull it off, but McEntire effortlessly knocks it out of the park.
Here’s the deal. These days, there is no shortage of young women with barely any life experience who have the whole world hanging on every word they say. McEntire doesn’t need to lower herself to that level, just so she can be heard. As the best moments on All the Women I Am prove, she’s more authoritative when speaking for her own generation than she can ever be by adopting the viewpoints of the young’uns who aren’t that interesting to begin with. Music by adults, for adults please.
The Incredible Machine is a terrible album, an unmitigated disaster that manages to fail in ways that shouldn’t even be possible, especially on a mainstream album created by established professionals and released by a major label.
At its best, Sugarland has made successful music by combining clever musical arrangements with strong lyrical hooks, delivered by the inimitable vocal talent that is Jennifer Nettles. I would have deemed a full album being completely devoid of all three components inconceivable, but The Incredible Machine comes frighteningly close.
First, the arrangements. Look, it’s cool when an audience sings back to you at a concert. Heck, the Sugarland audience has been known to sing along with “Stay” and “Joey”, which are hardly your typical Bic light anthems. But on several tracks here, Jennifer and Kristian become their own audience, singing back to each other in chants best fit for a Journey concert.
And, oh boy, are they chanting back some inane lyrics. Sugarland make the fatal error of mistaking form for content. Yes, there’s an adrenaline rush that’s produced by Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”, and Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On a Prayer”, and Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” But that’s because the songs have a deeper meaning that resonates with audiences, not just because they simply can be chanted along with.
So we get the empty platitudes of “Stand Up”, for example, which impels us to do stand up and…do what, exactly? It unpleasantly reminded me of the high drama of primary season two years ago, when I stood there confused, wondering why I was supposed to be inspired by vague promises of change instead of hard work and proven results. The time for music lifting up a people into social action is largely behind us, but if you’re going to try to resurrect it, it helps to clue us in on what you’re impelling us to do. Unless you just want to feel important for five minutes in an arena, I guess.
So the lyrics aren’t what you’d expect from Sugarland, even on an off day, and the arrangements fall flat on nearly every track. But you still have Jennifer Nettles at the mic, so that must be a net positive, right?
Wrong. I don’t know the Jennifer Nettles on most of this album. She yells at me, can’t enunciate, uses odd accents, and often sounds like she has a head cold, the latter being very pronounced on the could’ve-been-good-if-it-was-sung-better “Tonight.” I can only shake my head at the sad truth that the woman who once broke my heart singing about “Pictures, dishes, and socks” can now repeat the same word a dozen times in the title track without me being able to decipher it once. (The word is “calling”, by the way. Not that it matters, since it doesn’t make sense anyway.)
I can’t think of an album that has ever disappointed me more than this one. Having loved Love On the Inside and Live on the Inside, and simply adoring lead single, “Stuck Like Glue”, I really thought this was going to be good. The charm of that lead single, which brought reggae flavor firmly over to traditional Sugarland territory, had me thinking they could be country music’s Blondie, innovative in their integration of other genres without sacrificing their own musical identity. They decided to be its Starship instead, rejecting everything that made them distinctive and relevant and embracing a musical style that they aren’t even able to do competently, let alone do well.
Where were the adults to tell this A-list act that the music wasn’t working? Why even have a record label anymore, if they either can’t hear the sound of their top act throwing their careers away or don’t have the gumption to stop them before they do? This is a poorly conceived and poorly executed album. Even one of those would be bad enough, but the two of them together is worse than tragic. It’s a disgrace.
In a male-dominated industry, it’s often difficult to hear distinction in the plethora of male voices on mainstream country radio. We do not have such a challenge with Randy Houser, however. Instead, Houser has a voice that rivals the soul and strength of Brooks and Dunn’s Ronnie Dunn. Regrettably, his debut album mainly suffered from production that detracted from his distinctive voice by placing heavy emphasis on the trending bombast of the times.
Houser’s promise was not completely absent, however, as demonstrated on strong songs like “Anything Goes”, “Something Real” and “How Many Times”, along with the playful “Lie”. Unfortunately, those moments were overshadowed by the larger raucous tone of the album, which, ultimately, made the disc uneven. So, in one of the small positive twists of 2010, Houser’s new album, They Call Me Cadillac, is a pleasant divergence from his previous effort.
Along with the jaunty title track that, apparently, refers to Houser’s nickname, “Out Here in the Country”, and “I’m All about It” help to fill the uptempo quota that is inarguably needed for a mainstream release. These songs are catchy with a certain level of cheeky charm to keep them enjoyable. Additionally, “A Man Like Me” is a pleasing throwback to a Waylon Jennings sound with a refreshing modern twist to it. On the mellower end of things, the slow burning “Addicted” and the pretty waltz, “If I Could Buy Me Some Time”, help to serve as a good counterbalance.
There are a couple of missteps on the album, however. “Whistlin’ Dixie”, the album’s lead single, is simply an intolerable wall of noise full of insufferable clichés for the express purpose of conjuring up southern imagery. The other notable stumble on the album is sonically pleasing, but lyrically troubling. “Will I Always Be This Way” is a self-indulgent lament of a man who doesn’t know if he can ever settle down. While the sentiment is a continual trope of country songs, it’s expressed especially distastefully in this one, as Houser asks, “Will I ever be the kind of guy / Who’s running home every night / To the little house / And doing right by the little wife?”
Luckily, the album is rarely interrupted by such inferior material. Instead, it’s largely comprised of solid songs with some standout gems, particularly the bone-chillingly spare “Lead Me Home”, a bluesy gospel song that Houser vocally nails with just the right mix of soul and restraint. Similarly, “Somewhere South of Memphis” is also impressively soulful, as its title rightfully suggests.
Randy Houser is now on the Toby Keith-owned label, Show Dog Universal. Interestingly, it seems that despite Keith’s reputation for in-your-face songs and productions, Houser has still been granted the freedom to dial back the loud that pervaded his freshman album to embrace a less cluttered, more organic sound for his sophomore project. Rather than the screaming guitars and pulsating rhythms that largely drove Anything Goes, this album manages to find a way to retain the energy from the first album while sounding relaxed and allowing Houser to seem more comfortable with his songs. Electric guitars and hooky drum beats are still a part of the equation, but fiddles, acoustic and steel guitars are just as present, which mercifully allows the two styles to positively coexist.
There is no sophomore slump for husband-wife duo, Joey+Rory, though the album’s title song displays a tongue in cheek awareness that doesn’t take the possibility for granted. As it was with their first album, their second album is a hybrid of sounds in true, producer, Carl Jackson fashion. A mix of hard core country, bluegrass, folk, acoustic and even contemporary touches are all present, woven together to form a sonically crisp and organic feel. The main difference between the two albums is that Rory takes the lead once in awhile on this album, which was Joey’s sole responsibility last time out.
By now, we are all aware of Joey Martin’s and Rory Feek’s genuine love for each other. We see it in their public interactions and we hear it in their songs. As they share singing duties on “Born to Be Your Woman”, we hear a sweet love declaration between a husband and wife. They also express the value that they place on their relationship on the gentle, “That’s Important to me.”
Their love clearly doesn’t only exist in cerebral form, however, as they seem equally connected when they let loose and show their sense of humor as is evident in the title track, “God Help My Man”, “Baby, I’ll Come Back to You”, and “You Ain’t Right”.
“God Help My Man” starts out sounding as if it’s going to be another pretty love song, but we soon learn that Joey has no qualms about laying down the gauntlet when necessary, as she quietly, but bitingly, warns: “God Help my man if he’s fooling around/If he’s fooling around with some hussy he knows/While I’m rocking his babies and washing his clothes/If he thinks he can come home and climb into my bed/He’s got a fryin’ pan comin’ upside of his head.”
Also along the humorous track, the duo gives us one of the cleverest name dropping songs that there is. “Baby, I’ll Come Back to You” not only checks many country music names, but humorously references aspects of country artists that only country music fans might find amusing: “Now, I’m not sayin’ there’s no chance at all/But it don’t take no crystal ball/To see the chance is mighty slim,/Chris Gaines or me are comin’ back again.”
The album isn’t just love and games, however, as some of its most meaningful moments are quietly and effectively captured in the touching story song of “The Horse Nobody Could Ride”, the spiritual “Where Jesus Is”, and Rory’s intimate tribute to his father in the piano driven “My Ol’ Man that depicts a tough, but selfless and supportive father.
Measuring and identifying sincerity and authenticity is ultimately a subjective exercise, but if it’s ever at all tangible, Joey and Rory are the people who seem to effortlessly exude the traits in both life and song. As simply stated in “That’s Important to Me”, they explain: “Believing our dreams will take us somewhere/Still being ourselves if we ever get there/That’s important to me.”
As Dan observed in his single review of “Up on the Ridge”, there was a noticeable decline in Dierks Bentley’s music after his well received Long Trip Alone album. It is purely speculative to suggest, but one can’t help but wonder if Bentley himself felt staleness creeping into his music as well. It’s not farfetched for the idea to be true, since Dierks has proven himself to be an astute artist in the past. So, why wouldn’t he notice if there was, indeed, a shift?
Speculation aside, Bentley has taken a break from the routine of his last four albums to create an album that is far removed from what is popular on mainstream country radio and somewhat different than what he’s put on his own previous albums. However, he is still marketing to radio, as his first single, the title track, has been treated like any other Bentley single release. The album is not as adventurous, or as strong, as the Dixie Chicks’ unapologetically acoustic album, but it may be as close to the concept as we have gotten since their targeted mainstream acoustic project, Home.
It has been appropriately publicized that this album is not a pure bluegrass project. Instead, it is close in style to the bluegrass influenced tracks that Bentley has consistently included on each of his studio albums. Yes, mandolin, banjo, dobro and fiddle are ever present, but Bentley is not shy about using drums, exploring subversive melodies (“Up on the Ridge”, “Fallin’ for You”), or deviating from traditional bluegrass rules of engagement along the way. Moreover, Bentley does not possess the high lonesome tenor that is typically associated with bluegrass. He, however, proves himself to be a capable vocalist within the parameters of his unique style of it.
A handful of covers, songs by well respected songwriters, and some of Bentley’s own compositions makes this rootsy album a well rounded set. The best of the covers is bob Dylan’s “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power) and Kris Kristofferson’s Bottle to the Bottom”. While the otherwise solid “Bottle to the Bottom” features a somewhat pointless cameo by Kristofferson, the addition of the Punch Brothers on “Senor” is inspired art. A less successful cover is U2’s “Pride (in the Name of Love).” While Del McCoury’s distinctive tenor does well to do the heavy lifting, the over all recording still lacks the etherealness of the original. Ironically, as they are most closely associated with Americana, the Buddy Miller cover is the most mainstream friendly sounding song on the album. Unfortunately, it is also inferior to Miller’s version.
Among the strongest of Bentley’s songs is “Rovin’ Gambler” (once again, with the Punch Brothers), “Draw Me a Map” (featuring Alison Krauss on background vocals), “You’re Dead to Me” (co-written by and featuring Tim O’Brien”, and “Down in the Mine.”
Bentley wisely enlists the help of some of his creative friends such as the Punch Brothers (with Chris Thile of Nickel Creek fame), Del McCoury, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert, Tim O’Brien, and Kris Kristofferson. Complimented by Jon Randall’s organic production sensibilities, this impeccable support adds a welcome texture to the project. However, the collaborations work best when they are more subtle. For instance, while the prospect of Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson collaborating is, indeed, an appealing concept, the result does not rise to the occasion in practice. Both Lambert and Johnson deliver excellent performances with Bentley on “Bad Angel”, with Lambert’s voice being huskier than usual, but the parts together translate as more disjointed than natural. Likewise, the results of Del McCoury’s and Kris Kristofferson’s contributions were not as successful as one would hope for from such revered artists. On the other hand, the Punch Brothers (who played on several tracks), Alison Krauss, Tim O’Brien, Jon Randall, and Vince Gill (“Fiddlin’ Around”) were used less overtly to greater effect.
With expert musicianship by the best in the business, solid songs, and impressive vocal support, Up on the Ridge is a refreshing album from an artist who is taking a chance with this musical detour while still in the throes of a considerably lucrative career. Not only is taking such a chance commendable, Bentley has created a solid album to justify the diversion.
Oh, recreational blogging. One day, it’s as easy as finding a Waffle House exit on a Tennessee interstate. The next day, it’s like trying to digest what you ate there. You do your best, but you never really know when real life might start beckoning you and all your other writer buddies at once, leaving behind a skinnier website than any of you intended to keep.
Which is all good and well, of course; I certainly enjoy all my inadvertent time off, and I’m sure our more tasteful readers enjoy it, too. But Country Universe has always tried to stay on top of the album and singles markets, and in that regard, we’ve got a fair bit of catching up to do.
So that’s been our main focus for the last week or so, and we’ll keep at it until we’ve covered a good chunk of the pertinent material – or, you know, move onto a more awesome feature or something. We’ll keep updating this index post as we do so, so keep checking back!
I suppose this puts the “Natalie Maines dragged the other two Chicks away from their roots” theory to rest.
The debut album from Court Yard Hounds, the duo comprised of sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, is an adult pop affair. This isn’t disappointing in its own right, being only a few degrees less country than the excellent Chicks album that preceded it, but what’s absent is both the urgency of that album’s material and Maines’ powerhouse delivery of it.
As on Taking the Long Way, the songwriting is done in-house, and the two sisters prove they are still quite adept with a pen. Some of the songs are as good as anything the Chicks have written or recorded. “Then Again” gets into the psyche of a self-destructive woman, while the stunning “Ain’t No Son” plays out like the prequel to “Top of the World”, with the narrator wreaking the havoc that he’d later rue upon his death.
But the album is hampered by playing down their strengths in favor of their weaknesses. Where Maguire and Robison have always shined is on their instruments, and there simply isn’t much of a showcase of their virtuoso talents. Long Way proved that they can stretch beyond their country and bluegrass roots, with the fierce fiddle on “Lubbock or Leave It” bordering on punk. There’s no such adventuring here.
This wouldn’t matter as much if they were able to compensate at the mic, but they make the strange choice of downplaying their sisterly harmonies for a warmed-over variation of post-Globe Sessions Sheryl Crow. The songwriting is strong enough to make this an interesting listen, with genuine gems like “See You in the Spring”, “Gracefully”, and “It Didn’t Make a Sound”, and I’d love to see them do these songs in a live setting that’s less restrained. But as it is, Court Yard Hounds plays more like a collection of lost demos than a cohesive album in its own right.
Dixie Chicks Playlist: The Very Best of Dixie Chicks
For those of us who were living and breathing country fans from 1998 to 2006, the idea of a Dixie Chicks compilation is unnecessary. Some of us have all four albums and listen to them in different proportions, while a fairly large part of their audience haven’t bothered with them since 2003.
But Playlist, the first compilation of the Natalie Maines-helmed era of the band, is the only career-spanning introduction for those who may be discovering them for the first time. Don’t let its existence as part of an established budget line fool you, either. The twelve tracks found on this collection were picked by the Chicks themselves, not a record executive or chart history buff.
All four of the Chicks albums are critically acclaimed and were commercially successful. Heck, all four of them won the Grammy for Best Country Album to boot. So my instinct is to call this the best case for just buying the original albums since the first Emmylou Harris hits set. But I say this as someone who would reflexively tell listeners to buy Home and Taking the Long Way first, and I know of several country music fans and journalists who would swap out one or both of those titles in favor of Wide Open Spaces and Fly.
So the beauty of this set is that it picks a handful of tracks from each album that are truly representative of each set. The Chicks made four very different albums. Wide Open Spaces, a debut set that seemed bold at the time but is almost quaint in its conventionalism today, is represented by the title track and “You Were Mine”, two #1 hits that are easily the strongest of the five singles from that album.
The selections from Fly are where things get interesting. That album produced seven top twenty hits, but only one of them is here: the #1 hit “Cowboy Take Me Away.” While a case could be made for including “Goodbye Earl” as well, the set is stronger for including their tender cover of Patty Griffin’s “Let Him Fly” and the fearless “Sin Wagon”, which is the best pre-Home showcase of Martie Maguire and Emily Robison’s jaw-dropping instrumental prowess.
Home is their best album to date, and while I miss the absent “Travelin’ Soldier” and “Top of the World”, the inclusion of Griffin’s “Truth No. 2″ alongside smash hits “Long Time Gone” and “Landslide” is fair compensation. And while Taking the Long Way produced only one big hit, “Not Ready to Make Nice”, it is joined by three more great autobiographical hits that should’ve been: “The Long Way Around”, “Easy Silence”, and “Lubbock or Leave It.”
Is it a perfect collection? No. But it’s close enough, and a much better reflection of the band’s best work than a traditional hits collection could ever be. If you’re looking for a strong introduction to the most talented and successful country band of the past 25 years, this is the place to start.