It’s pretty much an old cliché that country music artists tend to be the most personable and accessible to their fans. I don’t know if it’s technically true, but I tend to believe it myself. Over the years, I’ve heard some stories that have blown me away regarding the generosity of country music artists and I’m not talking about the highly publicized fundraisers or official charitable events. I think those are certainly worthwhile, but it’s the intimate stories that truly tug at my stiff heartstrings.
One of my favorite stories is about Johnny Cash. His brother, Tommy, tells of a time that they were in a locker room together and he caught Johnny inconspicuously looking for the most worn out pair of sneakers that he could find so that he could slip a $100 bill in them.
More recently, I’ve seen a story that, once again, makes me feel good about the people who represent country music on a human level. While this story about Dierks Bentley’s day with a boy with Autism (as told by the boy’s grateful mother) is long, I defy you not to be moved by it.
What are your favorite stories involving country music artists? While my examples were serious, feel free to go in a different direction (funny, intriguing, etc.), as long as it’s tasteful.
While Taylor Swift mania continues to grow, there’s another impressive accomplishment being achieved by two veterans of country music on the opposite end of the age spectrum.
Contrary to what is commonly believed, there has always been a ceiling on how old you could be and still get country airplay. This year, both George Strait and Reba McEntire have been working steadily to shatter that ceiling.
Take a look at the age of country legends when they earned their most recent top ten solo hit:
Eddy Arnold, 62
Kenny Rogers, 61*
Conway Twitty, 58
George Strait, 57
George Jones, 57**
Marty Robbins, 57
Willie Nelson, 56**
Ray Price, 56
Reba McEntire, 54
Waylon Jennings, 53
Merle Haggard, 52
Alan Jackson, 50
Charley Pride, 50
Johnny Cash, 49
Ernest Tubb, 49
Ronnie Milsap, 48
Loretta Lynn, 47
Webb Pierce, 46
Garth Brooks, 45
Dolly Parton, 43**
Hank Williams Jr., 41
Tammy Wynette, 40
* Kenny Rogers was the lead singer for his final top ten hit “Buy Me a Rose”, with harmony vocalists Billy Dean and Alison Krauss credited on the single
** George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton returned to the top ten in later years through duets with younger artists
It’s also worth noting that Alan Jackson, at 50, isn’t too far away from passing several legends on the list.
So George Strait remains in heavy rotation at the age of 57, outpacing all but three stars in country music history. Among the ladies, McEntire is a full seven years older than her nearest competitor Loretta Lynn was when she enjoyed her last top ten hit.
Country Universe contributor and reader Cory DeStein flagged this rundown from Billboard regarding women on the charts this decade:
PERFECT 10: On Country Songs, Carrie Underwood ropes her 10th top 10, as “Cowboy Casanova” climbs 11-8. With the advance, Underwood now stands alone in first-place for most top 10s on the chart among solo women this decade.
Here are the solo females with the most top 10s on Country Songs since 2000:
10, Carrie Underwood
9, Faith Hill
9, Martina McBride
8, Taylor Swift
7, Sara Evans
7, Reba McEntire
6, Jo Dee Messina
5, LeAnn Rimes
5, Gretchen Wilson
4, Shania Twain
Notably, the artist who led the category among women last decade did so with almost three times as many top 10s. Reba McEntire ranked first among solo women in the ’90s with 27 top 10s on Country Songs. Trisha Yearwood placed second with 18 between 1990 and 1999, and Faith Hill, Patty Loveless and Tanya Tucker each posted 14 in that span.
The decline in fortune for women at radio this decade is even more pronounced when you compare the above top ten to the previous decade:
Most Top Ten Singles by a Female Artist – 1990-1999:
Reba McEntire (27)
Trisha Yearwood (18)
Faith Hill (14)
Patty Loveless (14)
Tanya Tucker (14)
Pam Tillis (13)
Lorrie Morgan (12)
Shania Twain (12)
Martina McBride (10)
That’s ten women who matched Underwood’s total for this decade. That Underwood didn’t even hit the top ten for the first time until late 2005 shows how bleak it was at radio for female artists this year.
But this comparison doesn’t even tell the whole story. Take a look at the list of women with the most top ten singles two decades ago:
Most Top Ten Singles by a Female Artist – 1980-1989:
Reba McEntire (23)
Crystal Gayle (22)
Dolly Parton (21)
Janie Fricke (17)
Barbara Mandrell (17)
Rosanne Cash (16)
Emmylou Harris (16)
Anne Murray (14)
Tanya Tucker (12)
Kathy Mattea (10)
Notice the trend? This decade, the top ten women combined for a total of 70 top ten hits. In the 90′s, the top ten women enjoyed a total of 145 top ten hits. In the eighties, a total of 168 top ten hits. Even the nineties list is dominated by women who were played heavily in the earlier part of the decade.
What’s strange is that it was in the mid-nineties that female artists became the dominant commercial force in country music. Janie Fricke never had a gold album. Shania Twain has sold 48 million albums. Yet Fricke had more top ten hits in just the eighties than Shania Twain has earned in her entire career. Record buyers have wholeheartedly embraced Alison Krauss and Miranda Lambert, but despite their strong sales, they’ve each enjoyed only one solo top ten hit.
So what to make of all of this? Is the recent success of Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood an indication that things are improving for women on the radio dial? Is it worth noting that Sugarland and Jennifer Nettles (11 top ten hits) and the Dixie Chicks (14 top ten hits) have done their part to compensate for this lack of gender parity? Does it even matter that radio is playing women less often each decade, especially if record buyers are finding their music anyway?
I’ve just gotta ask: Is this the worst year ever for country music?
Forgive me, but I can’t remember ever being so uninspired and uninterested in mainstream country music as I have been this year. I started listening to country around 1991, so that would make this the worst of the nineteen years I’ve been listening to it.
Even the nineties artists have been limiting themselves to covers albums and even sequels. Not that some of those aren’t good projects, but what does a guy have to do to get a solid studio album these days?
The reissue market hasn’t been any better. Even the upcoming Dolly Parton box set is a disappointment, a collection that abruptly stops in 1993. A collection claiming to be definitive that ends with her Billy Ray Cyrus duet “Romeo” does not bode well.
Am I just being a grouch, or has this really been a bummer of a year?
There’s a certain sadness to the month of September. The first hints of fall feel like the beginning of the end, as summer warmth tuns to autumn chill. Perhaps that’s why there are so many great songs about this time of year, nearly all of them tinged with sadness.
For me, “September When it Comes” is the most beautiful example of this theme. The track was recorded by Rosanne Cash and Johnny Cash just months before he passed away. The song eerily foreshadowed his death, which would come to pass that very September:
There are many other great country songs about September, like Ryan Adams & The Cardinals’ “September” and Cheryl Wheeler’s “75 Septembers.” Then there are the great songs about the season in general, like Lorrie Morgan’s “Autumn’s Not That Cold” and George Strait’s “The Chill of an Early Fall.” Pop music has its own fair share as well, with Neil Diamond’s “September Morn” and Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends” being bona fide classics.
Of course, the greatest September moment in pop culture history isn’t a song, but it deserves to be included every single time this month comes up in conversation:
What are your favorite songs about the month of September and the beginning of fall?
It’s time for another iPod (or any other music player) check. Last time, I asked you to put your music device on shuffle and then tell us the first ten songs that you would recommend. This time, I want you to do the same thing, but then jot down your initial thoughts on the songs as your ten recommended songs play. Then share your informal thoughts in the comments.
I’ll play along too, but I’ll spare you the Christmas songs that will inevitably come up in my shuffle, which I’d heartily recommend if I wasn’t keenly aware that it’s still only September.
John Anderson, “I’d Love You Again”
Nice, sweet song from the rough voice guy who’s still able to sing a tender song with the best of them.
Todd Snider, “Alright Guy”
I love how Snider really seems to be pondering this question: “I’m an alright guy? Right? Right?”
Ashley Monroe, “Can’t Let Go”
Peppy…reminds me of a Garth Brooks type song.
Patty Loveless, “What’s A Broken Heart”
Melancholy…something Patty Loveless does the best.
Rodney Crowell, “Earthbound”
A celebration of life that doesn’t happen to be sappy.
Kathy Mattea, “Junkyard”
I can relate to this song. My motto has always been “Life’s depressing enough. Why would I want to watch things that would only contribute to the darkness?” That’s why I don’t watch dark films, though it so happens that I don’t have the same philosophy about music.
The Judds, “Flies on the Butter (You Can’t Go Home Again)”
There’s just something wistful about this song. Obviously, the theme, but also how it’s performed. Perhaps I’m just imagining it, because I’m wistfully wishing there was a duo on radio like The Judds today…probably why I love Joey + Rory
Trent Summar and the New Row Mob, “Louisville Nashville Line”
It’s just imperative to turn Trent Summar and the New Row Mob up when they come up on the iPod.
Vince Gill, “Don’t Pretend with Me”
I really like the guitar on this song. It’s cool. In reality, this whole box set is awesome.
I’ve been working my way through the Beatles Remasters that were released earlier this week, thoroughly enjoying myself in the process. As I listened to Help!, I heard Ringo Starr doing his best Buck Owens imitation as they covered “Act Naturally.”
It’s pretty darn cool that the Beatles covered Buck Owens, and plenty of country artists have returned the favor ever since. With the Beatles all over the media these days, it seems as good a time as any to look back on some of country music’s biggest and best takes on the Beatles catalog:
Rosanne Cash, “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” and “I’m Only Sleeping”
Cash is the only country artist to score a #1 hit with a cover of a Beatles song, as her take on the Beatles For Sale track “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” became her eleventh and final #1 hit in 1989. An even better listen is her take on “I’m Only Sleeping” from her Retrospective release. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a much better song than “Party”, pulled from Revolver, arguably the best album the Beatles ever made.
Nickel Creek, “Taxman”
This progressive bluegrass band sounds great on record, but you don’t really get the full experience of their talent until you’ve seen their live show. Perhaps all of those royalties from their platinum-selling debut album pushed them into a higher tax bracket, as “Taxman” - another Revolver highlight – soon became a staple of their live shows.
Emmylou Harris, “For No One” and “Here, There and Everywhere”
Her first two solo albums included one Revolver cover each. She turns “For No One” into a pensive ballad on her debut set Pieces of the Sky and gives a gorgeous rendering of “Here, There and Everywhere” on her sophomore effort Elite Hotel.
Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, “Yesterday”
It really does sound like a Haggard and Nelson song when Haggard and Nelson do it.
Anne Murray, “You Won’t See Me”
Amazingly, John Lennon said this was the best Beatles cover he’d ever heard.
Those are some of the most notable country Beatles covers I could think of. What are your favorites? Least favorites?
One of the albums that I’m anticipating most this year is Rosanne Cash’s album, The List, which comes out on October 6. Anything new from Rosanne Cash is eagerly welcomed by me, but this project is bound to be particularly special. The album will be comprised of 12 classic songs culled from a list that her father, Johnny Cash (obviously), gave to her as essential listening back when she was eighteen-years old. Since she had to choose only 12 songs out of a reported list of one-hundred, it’s pretty safe to assume that these 12 choices are among her favorites of the list that was lovingly compiled by her father, even if she did not fully appreciate them at the young age of eighteen.
While I have not adopted a large portion of my parents’ musical tastes as an adult, there are certainly singers and songs that have filtered into my music repertoire thanks to their influence. Artists such as John Denver, Peter Paul & Mary, The Seekers, Don McLean, Simon and Garfunkel, ABBA and Gordon Lightfoot aren’t necessarily people I’d naturally seek out on my own. They, however, hold a special place with me as a result of my parents’ love of their music, to the point where I can easily call myself a fan of them too.
What music has been successfully filtered to you from your parents?
By the way, here’s the track listing for the upcoming Rosanne Cash album:
1. “Miss the Mississippi and You”
2. “Motherless Children”
3. “Sea of Heartbreak” (w/ Bruce Springsteen)
4. “Take These Chains From My Heart”
5. “I’m Movin’ On”
6. “She’s Got You”
7. “Heartaches by the Number” (w/ Elvis Costello)
8. “500 Miles”
9. “Long Black Veil” (w/ Jeff Tweedy)
10. “Silver Wings” (w/ Rufus Wainwright)
11. “Girl From the North Country”
12. “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow”
Our readers have clearly responded well to our Back to the Nineties features this month. (Fret not, there are more on the way.) Part of the reason is that so many of you, like myself and Leeann, first discovered country music in that decade.
This isn’t too surprising, as the nineties helped establish country music as a genre with widespread appeal. The suburbanization of once-rural America reached its apex, and at the same time, CMT deeply penetrated the cable market. For you newbies, the channel was 24-hour videos back then, with remarkably democratic video rotation.
A clip in heavy rotation would only be seen two more times a day than one in light rotation. This is the reason both Mutt Lange and Sean Penn discovered Shania Twain through her “What Made You Say That” clip, which was played extensively on the channel despite the song stalling at #55 at radio.
The New York country radio station back then would do a “Country Convert” feature every morning. A radio listener would call in and say what song converted them to country music. Newbies to country music back then had a religious zeal to them, and would work very hard trying to convince others to fall in love with the music.
In the spirit of that “Country Convert” feature, I’d like to ask all of you about your country music firsts. I imagine many of us will have answers concentrated in the nineties, but if yours are from another decade, share them anyway!
Here are the questions:
What was the first country song that you remember loving?
What was the first country album that you bought with your own money?
What was your first country concert?
What was the first country song that you remember loving?
I liked a lot of the older stuff that my parents listened to, like Johnny Horton and Conway Twitty, but it was always my parents’ music. One night, we were watching a TV variety show called Hot Country Nights. I think we had it on because my mom’s favorite, Ricky Van Shelton, was performing that night. Out came Pam Tillis, singing “Maybe It Was Memphis.” I just had never heard anything like it before, and I was instantly smitten.
What was the first country album that you bought with your own money?
I remember buying Pam Tillis’ Put Yourself in My Place and Lorrie Morgan’s Something in Red on the same day. I bought both on cassette. If I recall correctly, I listened only to Side 1 of each tape for a very long time.
What was your first country concert?
Somewhere in New Jersey in 1992: Clint Black, Billy Dean and Aaron Tippin. It was Black’s tour to support The Hard Way. I remember that there was a complicated set for Black’s performance, something with falling rocks.
Many people may mistake my cynicism regarding, what I perceive as, heavy handed God centric songs in country music as not having appreciation for religious songs as a rule. This, in fact, is not accurate. While I cringe at certain religiously themed songs that feel too forced or contrived, I will admit here that I am easily taken in by religious songs. In fact, Randy Travis’ Worship And Faith is one of my favorite albums from his expansive discography. Likewise, I can’t get enough of Iris Dement’s Lifeline. While I, of course, always recommend those albums to all who haven’t heard it yet, there is somebody else that I urge you to check out if you don’t mind some “ old time religion in your heart.”
I don’t listen to his more contemporary music, but one of my favorite religious albums is Fernando Ortega’s Hymns and Worship. Ortega’s easy tenor and sincere interpretation of oft sung songs is calming and good for my soul. I like the whole thing, but there are three songs in particular that I can offer to Country Universe readers, since they happen to be sonically rooted in country music.
“Children of the Living God”
This is one of the more up-tempo songs on the album. It prominently features Alison Krauss, along with unmistakable country instrumentation.
“How Firm A Foundation”
I’ve always liked this song. The melody is a bit different than what I’m used to, but I like it better. The production is very organic with a bit of a Celtic flavor.
“Give Me Jesus”
When I heard Vince Gill sing this on the telecast of a Grand Ole Opry special, he explained that he learned this song through Fernando Ortega. It’s a simple song with minimal lyrics that touched me uncharacteristically deeply. while I’m partial to Vince’s version, Ortega’s is likely equally good. Not surprisingly, Vince’s performance and back-story is how I stumbled upon this album in the first place. Vince’s lovely recording is simply accompanied by a piano. While Ortega is actually a pianist, his version is tastefully mixed with guitar, piano and violin.