Category Archives: Miscellaneous Musings

Ain’t Nothing Wrong with the Radio? (Or, When Nash ICON Came to Town)

nash-iconI more or less gave up on radio about fifteen years ago, after I purchased my first iPod. Like most right-minded people, I’d rather listen to the music I know I love than resort to enduring whatever songs have managed to squeeze onto Clear Channel’s narrow playlists in hopes of hearing something good. I’ve always been aggressive in seeking out new music on my own, so I’ve never been dependent upon radio for making new discoveries; when I listen to the radio now, I mostly tune into the local “classic country” station that plays only singles from the 70s through the early 00s.

Recently, however, I discovered that a radio station in my area had switched over to Cumulus Media’s much-ballyhooed new Nash ICON format, which is supposed to emphasize country artists from the 80s and 90s and to provide a platform for the new music by those artists who made that era such a rich period in the genre’s history. There are even rumblings that country radio, much like urban radio, is set to fracture into two formats: a “contemporary” format for today’s most popular acts and the ICON format that caters to a slightly older demographic.

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Song Talk: Music that Moves Me

Sarah JaroszMy local Public Radio station has a wonderful series called Music that Moves Me, which was conceived and originally produced by the inimitable Suzanne Nance who has now (sadly for us, but happily for her) moved on to bigger things in a big Chicago market. For this series, people across Maine submitted touching or funny stories about how a particular song or specific music has moved them in their lives. As a result, this series inspired me to make a playlist of songs that move me whenever I hear them. The songs that move me the most are those that promote sensitivity and kindness in the world or in me.

Here are just a few of the songs that move me. What are some of yours and why?

Sarah Jarosz, “Ring Them Bells”

Jarosz beautifully interprets this Bob Dylan Chestnut with the help of Vince Gill. There’s just something in her voice that makes me feel that she’s emotionally connected to the song and it’s inclusive message, which, in turn, connects me to the song.

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Hall Worthy: 2014 Edition

halloffamelogoEight years ago, we posted our second edition of Hall Worthy, a list of significant country music figures who we felt were most deserving of being in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Since then, a lot has changed.  First and foremost, more than half of the list is now in the Hall of Fame (or, at least, headed there later this year.)  An additional entry, Wanda Jackson, is now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

A bigger change came in 2009, when new categories were introduced to ensure that two artist inductees would be represented from different eras:  The Modern Era (20-44 years of national prominence), and the Veterans Era (45+ years of national prominence.)  There are also three more categories that rotate, meaning one from each category gets in every third year:  Non-Performer, Songwriter, and Recording and/or Touring Musician.

Finally, since that list was published, our readership has grown tremendously and is incredibly well-versed on country music, past and present.  So in this new and now annual edition of Hall Worthy, we are going to run down the list of the most successful artists that are eligible but have yet to make it into the Hall of Fame, in the order of  “Hall Worthiness.”

The Modern Era:

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Alan Jackson

Scoring his first hit in 1990 with “Here in the Real World”, Alan Jackson is the most successful country artist that isn’t currently in the Hall of Fame.  His storied career has included 25 #1 hits and 49 visits to the top ten.  He’s won a slew of awards over the years, including many for his songwriting.  He is the most traditionalist of all of the nineties superstars, but has managed to stay relevant regardless of how pop the genre went over the past quarter century, selling more than forty million albums in the U.S. alone.   He should be the next inductee for the Modern Era.

Randy Travis

Randy Travis

The poster child for the new traditionalist movement was also the first true country music superstar to sell millions of records without any crossover airplay or rock press appeal.  Travis is the primary reason that Nashville turned away from pursuing pop airplay for more than a decade, realizing that there was more than enough money to be made by growing (and eventually saturating) the country market.  His debut album, Storms of Life, remains one of the greatest country albums of all-time, and songs like “Forever and Ever, Amen”, “On the Other Hand”, and “Three Wooden Crosses” were award-winning classics.

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The Judds

Put aside all of the tabloid drama and focus just on the music.  Those heavenly harmonies were reminiscent of the Carter Family, while Wynonna’s breathtaking vocals added a contemporary breadth and soulful twist to their pure country sound.  They were so commercially successful and critically acclaimed that the CMA had to change the rules of the Vocal Duo category so someone else could win Vocal Group.   Wynonna’s solo career following Naomi Judd’s retirement only further extended the legacy of this essential duo.

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Ricky Skaggs

He’s often overlooked these days, as he’s made bluegrass his primary home.  But when he was a contemporary country star, he found a way to make bluegrass be contemporary country.  He was a central figure in making bluegrass music mainstream, making possible the future success of everyone from Alison Krauss & Union Station to the Dixie Chicks.   He’s managed to be both a pioneer of bluegrass music while also being a steadfast advocate for the bluegrass of old, and still scored eleven #1 country hits along the way and the CMA for Entertainer of the Year.  The Hall shouldn’t wait until he’s old enough for the Veterans Era.

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Patty Loveless

One of the few artists to successfully navigate both the eighties and the nineties on country radio, Patty Loveless is the most significant female artist of the Modern Era who is not yet inducted into the Hall of Fame.  Her acclaimed work for both MCA and Epic saw her develop from a singles artist with the good taste to cover Lucinda Williams, into an album artist that made critically acclaimed and surprisingly progressive traditional music.  Since fading from radio, she’s remained relevant with widely appreciated sets that delve deep into her mountain heritage, with her most recent set earning her a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album.

Dwight Yoakam

Dwight Yoakam

Extraordinarily talented and unfailingly artistic, Dwight Yoakam remains one of the most significant country artists from the new traditionalist movement, though his traditionalism has always had a West Coast flair that was more Owens than Haggard.   Never that much of a radio favorite, Yoakam still managed to sell millions of records, being one of the few legitimate album artists of his time.   His most recent work, 3 Pears, made more year-end critics lists than any other country album in 2012.

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Trisha Yearwood

The only artist on this list who could never be described as a traditionalist, Trisha Yearwood has earned her place in the Hall of Fame through making more consistently excellent music over a longer period of time than any of her contemporaries.   She’s sold a ton of records and had more than her fair share of radio hits and industry awards, but her ultimate legacy will be having the best set of pipes and the best taste in songs, a combination that many artists – female and male – have never managed to pull off nearly as well as Yearwood has over the years.  That’s what having the voice of a Ronstadt and the song sense of a Harris will do for you.

The Veterans Era:

Hank Williams Jr

Hank Williams, Jr.

By a wide margin, Hank Jr. is the most commercially successful artist of the Veterans Era who is not yet in the Hall of Fame.  His noxious public statements in recent years have reinforced a notion that he’s little more than a Southern rock caricature, but his legacy is greater than Monday Night Football and regional xenophobia. At his peak, he made some of the most significant country rock that’s ever been made, crafting himself a distinguished place in country music history that is wholly separate from his legendary father.  In fact, there’s a better chance right now that a bar in America is singing along with “Family Tradition” than anything from his daddy’s catalog.

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Charlie Rich

An artist who was always years ahead of his time, he had a remarkable run of commercial success in the seventies, a period where the times finally caught up to him for a brief spell.  His bluesy style was embraced by the pop scene for a time, with his hit “The Most Beautiful Girl” being one of those rare country hits that also topped the Hot 100.   A veteran of the Sun Records label that produced Hall of Famers like Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, Rich made the transition to Nashville while always keeping one foot grounded back in Memphis.

Jerry Reed

Jerry Reed

He was one of the most iconic stars of his time, thanks to his witty novelty records, stunning guitar prowess, and extensive appearances on film.  His songwriting success arrived earlier than his recording stardom, but once he got rolling, he was scoring million-selling hits that ran up the country and the pop charts.  He’s one of the few legends left that were truly unique and distinctive personalities who haven’t yet been inducted into the Hall of Fame.

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Tanya Tucker

She’s still three years away from eligibility in this category, with 2017 being the first year she can claim 45 years on the scene.  But while the competition is fierce for those Modern Era slots, Tucker should be voted in the first year she’s eligible as a veteran.  Her haunting, gothic early records are still revelatory, and in the years that followed, her gravely voice brought grit and soul to a long string of country hits.  She was able to remain a force to be reckoned with in the first half of the nineties, a remarkable holdover from the early seventies in an era that had wiped away even the stars of the late eighties to make room for the next big things.

Jim Ed Brown

Jim Ed Brown

Another legend that remained relevant over many different eras of country music, Jim Ed Brown’s immortality on record had already been guaranteed in 1959, when his family group the Browns recorded “The Three Bells.”  That classic hit topped the country and pop charts for many weeks, and the Browns kept going through most of the sixties, joining the cast of the Grand Ole Opry a few years before disbanding.  Brown went on to a successful solo career with classics like “Pop a Top” and “Morning” reaching the top five.  Then he teamed with Helen Cornelius and had his biggest hits since his days with the Browns, most notably “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You.”  At age eighty, he remains a force on the Opry and as a radio host, making him one of the longest-running personalities that the genre has ever seen.

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We Need to Have a Little Talk about Randy Travis

Randy TravisIn a year that has already brought the deaths of immortal talents like George Jones, Slim Whitman, Patti Page,  and Jack Greene, not to mention the untimely loss of Mindy McCready, it is understandable that the recent news regarding Randy Travis is having the country music fans collectively holding their breath with nervousness and dread.

There is something distinctly different about how I am processing the news about Randy Travis.    The thought of losing him is inextricably linked with a feeling that we’d be losing an essential core of the country music that I fell in love with more than two decades ago.  Now,  I remember Randy Travis from when I was a child.   What little kid wouldn’t be in love with a catchy song like “Forever and Ever, Amen”?

By the time I was old enough to discover country music on my own, he was already something of an elder statesman, despite his young age. As I delved into the history of the genre I was falling in love with, widely accepted concepts like Travis starting the new traditionalist movement and Storms of Life being one of greatest albums of all time had taken root.   The truth is, traditionalism never really went away, and even during the Urban Cowboy years, artists like Ricky Skaggs and Emmylou Harris were having commercial success with roots-based music.

But Randy Travis didn’t just have a bit of success.  He sold millions of records in a time where almost no country acts were doing so, and certainly none who didn’t incorporate pop or rock sounds into their work.   His massive success was the tipping point that made the nineties boom inevitable, as labels saw new acts like Clint Black and Alan Jackson as being capable of superstar status, instead of just being genre favorites that sold moderately well.

He never really got the credit he deserved for this, with the industry treating him like old news despite him continuing to score hits and sell platinum throughout the nineties and early 2000’s.   There are so many great singles that I was around for when they first came out.  “Before You Kill Us All.” “Look Heart, No Hands.”  “Out of My Bones.”  “Whisper My Name.”  “If I Didn’t Have You.”  “Better Class of Losers.”  “The Hole.”   “Three Wooden Crosses.” “Dig Two Graves.”  The list goes on and on.

He’s also responsible, through no fault of his own, for what I call country music’s Messiah Complex.   After he revolutionized the widespread appeal for traditionalism, which led to a solid decade of traditional country artists being signed and succeeding wildly, the sounds began to drift back to pop and rock flavorings.   Since this shift, every slightly twangy newbie has been anointed as the savior of country music.  Lee Ann Womack, Brad Paisley, Dixie Chicks, Joe Nichols, Josh Turner, Jamey Johnson, and Gretchen Wilson have all been shouldered with the burden of being the next Randy Travis.

This has led to deep disappointment when their second or third album struggled, or even worse, to feelings of betrayal when these selected stewards veered away from traditional country music.   All that pressure, and not a one of them even started off with an album in the same league as Storms of Life, though Johnson and the Chicks came remarkably close.

I can’t get my head or my heart around the thought that his contemporary titan might not be with us anymore.  I can’t stomach the coverage that focuses more on his personal troubles than his incredible body of work and peerless impact on country music as a whole.

Please use the comments to share your own thoughts and feelings about Randy Travis.  Also, I recommend reading the Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists piece that Leeann Ward wrote a few years ago.   It’s an excellent place to start for those who are looking to discover the his rich and diverse catalog.

 

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The Day the Music (Chart) Died

“300” height=”80″ />So, Billboard decided to completely change its chart methodology today:

Billboard unveils new methodology today for the long-standing Hot Country Songs, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and Hot Latin Songs charts. Each receive a major consumer-influenced face-lift, as digital download sales (tracked by Nielsen SoundScan) and streaming data (tracked by Nielsen BDS from such services as Spotify, Muve, Slacker, Rhapsody, Rdio and Xbox Music, among others) will now be factored into the 50-position rankings, along with existing radio airplay data monitored by Nielsen BDS. The makeovers will enable these charts to match the methodology applied to Billboard’s signature all-genre songs ranking, the Billboard Hot 100.

On the surface, this seems like a good idea. After all, the country singles chart included both sales and airplay data for decades, until

switching to airplay-only in 1989. Declining availability of retail singles made this change necessary.

Since the digital market emerged, I’ve been an advocate for bringing sales data back into the mix. There have been a few songs that were very popular with country audiences that radio didn’t embrace, like “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, “Hurt”, and “Not Ready to Make Nice”, but were mainstays on country video outlets and sold plenty of digital downloads alongside impressive album sales. The digital singles market also indicated the budding popularity of acts like Miranda Lambert and Eric Church, who have since become core radio acts.

So what’s the problem with the change? This:

The immediate beneficiaries of this week’s methodology change are Taylor Swift, Rihanna and Mumford & Sons.

Swift, who holds down the top two slots on Hot Country Songs with “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Red.” Her new country radio single “Begin Again” jumps 37-10. The pop-crossover No. 1 title ranks at No. 36 on Country Airplay (but also gets points associated with its pop-crossover play) and No. 1 on Country Digital Songs, while “Red” is absent from the Country Airplay list, but ranks No. 2 on Country Digital Songs. “Begin Again” appears at No. 29 on Country Airplay and No. 3 on Country Digital Songs.

There are so many problems here. First, and probably worst, pop airplay is now counting for the country genre chart. This week’s “#1 country song” would’ve been #36 if the methodology hadn’t changed. A song that was most notable for being the first song that country radio refused to play by Taylor Swift, because it had no business being on country radio in the first place. It is not a country hit that crossed over to pop. It’s a pop hit that failed to cross over to country.

#2 isn’t even a country single. It’s an advance download track previewing Swift’s new album. It will drop like a stone next week, much like it will on the Hot 100, where it enters at #6. But the Hot 100’s breadth is able to absorb tracks like this more easily, and it is almost impossible to get that high without at least some radio support. The #2 country single of the week wasn’t played on country radio this week.

Billboard says it’s modeling the new genre charts after the Hot 100, much like the way the genre album charts mirror the Billboard 200:

The move to the Hot 100-based formula will ensure that the top-ranked country, R&B/hip-hop, Latin and rock titles each week will be the top titles listed on each genre’s songs ranking. This will be in line with how the Billboard 200 albums chart aligns with the albums charts for each corresponding genre. Because of the switch to new methodology, the week-to-week movements on the charts for some songs (in either direction) could be quite dramatic.

Until now, only country stations contributed to the Hot Country Songs chart, or R&B/hip-hop stations to Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs; the same held true for Latin and rock. The new methodology, which will utilize the Hot 100’s formula of incorporating airplay from more than 1,200 stations of all genres monitored by BDS, will reward crossover titles receiving airplay on a multitude of formats. With digital download sales and streaming data measuring popularity on the most inclusive scale possible, it is only just the radio portion of Billboard chart calculations that includes airplay from the entire spectrum of monitored formats.

Big mistake. Albums sales are album sales. If x sells more than y, it’s higher on the album chart. Apples to apples. Each genre singles chart has its own idiosyncrasies, reflecting the different ways that music is received by the audience.

Despite all the new methods of delivery, country music’s primary method of distribution remains the radio. It may be the only thing left that is identifiably “country” in mainstream music. The vast majority of country artists do not pursue the pop market in lieu of the country market. At most, they pursue pop as well as country, but usually wait until the song’s a hit at their home format first.

The big crossover hits of years past – “Need You Now”, “You’re Still the One”, “Before He Cheats” – would’ve done very well under this new format, but would likely have spent more time at #1 when they were dominating top forty radio and the song was already a recurrent at country stations. Instead, they went #1 on the country chart when country radio was playing them, then flew up the pop charts a few weeks later, while a new single was hitting the country market.

This new chart methodology is bad enough as it is now. But what will happen when the labels realize the only way to have a #1 country hit is to get your song to be a pop hit, too?

There are so many other problems with this, including the increased challenges of breaking new country acts and the likelihood that digital single releases will now become more strategic than ever. (Remixes! Acoustic versions! Buy them separately so they each count as their own sale!)

I guess I just don’t see the point of having a country chart at all if it isn’t going to measure just the country market.

 

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Donna Summer: The Country Connection

Donna Summer, disco legend, passed away today at the age of 63.

Much like my earlier post on Whitney Houston's untimely passing, writing about Summer's death isn't completely foreign to our topic of country music.

Whereas Dolly Parton wrote a #1 pop hit by Whitney Houston, Donna Summer wrote a #1 country hit for Dolly Parton.

“Starting Over Again” is anything but a disco number.  It's a tender tale of a middle-aged couple divorcing after their children are grown:

Reba McEntire also covered the song in 1995, taking it back to the top twenty:

Summer co-wrote many of her classic hits, including “Love to Love You Baby”, “Dim All the Lights”, “I Feel Love”, “Bad Girls”, and “She Works Hard for the Money.” But my favorite of her compositions is “On the Radio”, which I actually heard first by Emmylou Harris as a straight-up heartbreaking ballad:

Needless to say, I was taken aback by the disco beat when I finally heard Summer's original version.

I haven't been writing much lately, but I couldn't let the passing of this timeless talent go by without comment.  Like Houston before her, she was a great singer who went too soon, and country music's legacy was just a little bit richer for her passing through.

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Getting to know you

Nearly three years ago, writing-starved and delirious at 1 in the morning, I sent Kevin a rambling e-mail asking if he’d consider having me write a few guest posts here at Country Universe. He graciously took me in as a staff writer, and I’ve since had the privilege of sharing my passion for country music –wacky and irrational though it may be– with all of you.

But this blog hasn’t just scratched my writing itch and strengthened my relationship with the genre; it’s introduced me to a family of writers who I can’t quite imagine my life without. Dan once wrote that blogs aren’t about regular people posing as high-and-mighty critics, but about word-of-mouth. They’re the internet equivalent of a trusted friend.

To be sure, “friend” is a questionable term in this digital era, thrown around more carelessly than it’s ever been. But I’d like to think that at Country Universe and in the larger country music blogosphere, it has a richer meaning. This a community in which critics, bloggers, readers, listeners and even artists are all cut from the same cloth, whether we choose to recognize it or not.

Within our own Country Universe family, some of us have met in person, but most of us haven’t. As a team-building activity of sorts for the expanded staff, we recently took a Jung / Briggs Meyers personality test to get to know each other on a more personal level. Accurate or not, the below results are a fun window to the part of life in which we don’t get to interact.  In some cases, they also provide interesting insight to the way we approach, dissect and appreciate music on this blog.

Which brings me to you – the readers, who are as much a part of this blog as the music itself.  We want you to get to know us a little better, but more importantly, if you’re comfortable doing so, we’d love for you to share your own personality test results or a tidbit about your life. Sound off below, and thanks as always for being part of the Country Universe family.

Noah Eaton & Dan Milliken – ENFP (Extraverted Intuitive Feeling Perceiving)

ENFPs are both “idea”-people and “people”-people, who see everyone and everything as part of a cosmic whole. They want to both help and to be liked and admired by other people, on both an individual and a humanitarian level. This is rarely a problem for the ENFP, as they are outgoing and warm, and genuinely like people. Some ENFPs have a great deal of zany charm, which can ingratiate them to more stodgy types in spite of their unconventionality.

ENFPs often have strong, if sometimes surprising, values and viewpoints. They tend to try to use their social skills and contacts to persuade others gently (though enthusiastically) of the rightness of these views; this sometimes results in the ENFP neglecting their nearest and dearest while caught up their efforts to change the world.

Read more: http://typelogic.com/enfp.html

Ben Foster & Leeann Ward – ISFJ (Introverted Sensing Feeling Judging)

ISFJs are characterized above all by their desire to serve others, their “need to be needed.” In extreme cases, this need is so strong that standard give-and-take relationships are deeply unsatisfying to them; however, most ISFJs find more than enough with which to occupy themselves within the framework of a normal life. (Since ISFJs, like all SJs, are very much bound by the prevailing social conventions, their form of “service” is likely to exclude any elements of moral or political controversy; they specialize in the local, the personal, and the practical.)

ISFJs are often unappreciated, at work, home, and play. Ironically, because they prove over and over that they can be relied on for their loyalty and unstinting, high-quality work, those around them often take them for granted–even take advantage of them. Admittedly, the problem is sometimes aggravated by the ISFJs themselves; for instance, they are notoriously bad at delegating (“If you want it done right, do it yourself”).

Read more: http://typelogic.com/isfj.html

Jonathan Keefe – ENFJ (Extraverted Intuitive Feeling Judging)

ENFJs are the benevolent ‘pedagogues’ of humanity. They have tremendous charisma by which many are drawn into their nurturant tutelage and/or grand schemes. Many ENFJs have tremendous power to manipulate others with their phenomenal interpersonal skills and unique salesmanship. But it’s usually not meant as manipulation — ENFJs generally believe in their dreams, and see themselves as helpers and enablers, which they usually are.

ENFJs are global learners. They see the big picture. The ENFJs focus is expansive. Some can juggle an amazing number of responsibilities or projects simultaneously. Many ENFJs have tremendous entrepreneurial ability. ENFJs are organized in the arena of interpersonal affairs. Their offices may or may not be cluttered, but their conclusions (reached through feelings) about people and motives are drawn much more quickly and are more resilient than those of their NFP counterparts.

Read more: http://typelogic.com/enfj.html

Sam Gazdziak – ISTJ (Introverted Sensing Thinking Judging )

ISTJs are often called inspectors. They have a keen sense of right and wrong, especially in their area of interest and/or responsibility. They are noted for devotion to duty. Punctuality is a watchword of the ISTJ. The secretary, clerk, or business(wo)man by whom others set their clocks is likely to be an ISTJ.

As do other Introverted Thinkers, ISTJs often give the initial impression of being aloof and perhaps somewhat cold. Effusive expression of emotional warmth is not something that ISTJs do without considerable energy loss. ISTJs are most at home with “just the facts, Ma’am.” They seem to perform at highest efficiency when employing a step-by-step approach.

Read more: http://typelogic.com/istj.html

Tara Seetharam & Kevin John Coyne – INFJ (Introverted Intuitive Feeling Judging)

INFJs are distinguished by both their complexity of character and the unusual range and depth of their talents. Strongly humanitarian in outlook, INFJs tend to be idealists, and because of their J preference for closure and completion, they are generally “doers” as well as dreamers. This rare combination of vision and practicality often results in INFJs taking a disproportionate amount of responsibility in the various causes to which so many of them seem to be drawn.

INFJs are deeply concerned about their relations with individuals as well as the state of humanity at large. They are, in fact, sometimes mistaken for extroverts because they appear so outgoing and are so genuinely interested in people — a product of the Feeling function they most readily show to the world. On the contrary, INFJs are true introverts, who can only be emotionally intimate and fulfilled with a chosen few from among their long-term friends, family, or obvious “soul mates.”

Read more: http://typelogic.com/infj.html

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Deep Down in 2011

Lately, I’ve been playing “Deep Down” on a loop, and it got me thinking…

What if one of the big female artists of 2011 were the first to release this song?

If Carrie Underwood recorded it in 2011, the song would be praised as one of the best she’s ever recorded, but she’d be criticized for over-singing and over-producing it.

If Taylor Swift recorded it in 2011, the song would be praised as one of the best she’s ever recorded, but she’d be criticized for missing every other note, even with the help of auto-tune.

If Miranda Lambert recorded it in 2011, the song would be praised as one of the best she’s ever recorded, and further evidence that she’s the messiah of contemporary country music, regardless of how she sang or produced it.

But alas, Pam Tillis recorded it in 1995, and the song went largely unnoticed, because a great song with a great vocal performance and a great production was expected, not special, coming from her.

This same post could’ve been written about  “Nothin’ But the Wheel”, “Believe Me Baby (I Lied)”, “Aces”, “Is It Over Yet”, “I Guess You Had to Be There” or “Standing Knee Deep in a River.”

Perhaps the best way to listen to country music in 2011 is not to listen to anything else in the genre’s history. That way the illusion that there is some great contemporary country music out there can be preserved.

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Pop Goes Country – A Cover Song Report Card

Cover songs can be a hot topic at just about any given time.  We recently got to hear a somewhat underwhelming OneRepublic cover by Faith Hill, which Kevin recently reviewed.  Other recent attempts include Sara Evans’ pop-country reworking of Rod Stewart’s “My Heart Can’t Tell You No,” as well as last year’s polarizing Beyoncé cover by Reba McEntire.

Since cover songs are so much fun to talk about, I thought I’d weigh in on a few well-known cover songs from the past few years – the good ones, as well as a few that we would rather forget.  My criteria is simple:  A good cover song should bring something new to the table, and the song should be treated in a way that is well-suited to the artist as well as the genre.  This list focuses specifically on country covers of non-country songs.

 

Click the original artists’ names in parentheses to hear the original versions.

 

Rosanne Cash, “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” (The Beatles)
1989 | #1

Where it goes right:  Rosanne’s last career hit was a cover from a Beatles tribute album, and it didn’t sound quite like one might expect.  Though rarely one to use overt country instrumentation throughout most of her career, she delivers a brisk, upbeat take that’s layered in fiddling.  I’ll take it!

Grade:  B+

Mark Chesnutt, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” (Aerosmith)
1998 | #1

Where it goes wrong:  It’s hard to imagine a worse pairing between song and performer.  Mark Chesnutt, the revered neotraditionalist behind “Too Cold at Home” and “Going Through the Big D” covering a rock power ballad?  It’s true – complete with apologetic steel guitar fills and a vocal smothered in autotune.  The end result is so cheesy that you might as well slap it between two crackers.  The fact that this is the top Mark Chesnutt iTunes download is very very sad.

Grade:  D

 

Dixie Chicks, “Landslide” (Fleetwood Mac)
2002 | #2

Where it goes right:  The Chicks give a well-known Fleetwood Mac favorite a stripped-down bluegrass treatment, which is a great fit for the nature-related imagery in the song’s lyrics.  The Chicks elevate the song further with their gorgeous harmonies.  As much as I love Fleetwood Mac, I have to say that this version tops the original.  It’s one of the best cover songs I’ve ever heard, and one of the Dixie Chicks’ personal best moments, of which there have been many.

Grade:  A

 

Sara Evans, “I Could Not Ask for More” (Edwin McCain)
2001 | #2

Where it goes right:  Evans delivers a stunning and powerful vocal performance that holds nothing back whatsoever.

Where it goes wrong:  The arrangement is a bit syrupy, and it’s essentially a pop cover of a pop song.  Is a little fiddle or steel too much to ask for?

Grade:  B

 

Faith Hill, “Piece of My Heart” (Erma Franklin, Janis Joplin)
1994 | #1
faith hill piece of my heart video Pictures, Images and Photos
(Watch the video)

Where it goes right:  The fact that Hill was unfamiliar with the Franklin and Joplin versions is telling.  You can easily tell that she is making no attempt to emulate the style of another artist, instead giving a performance totally her own, while the songs’s melody fits well with the countrified arrangement.

Where it goes wrong:  Again, the fact that Hill was unfamiliar with the previous versions is telling.  Her performance lacks the fire and fury of Joplin’s version, which makes it easy to see why one might consider Hill’s performance to be a bit too sugary.

Grade:  B-

 

Alison Krauss, “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You” (The Foundations)
1995 | #49

Where it goes right:  Krauss takes a forgettable Motown tune, and delivers a slowed-down mid-tempo version that much more deeply accentuates the emotions conveyed in the lyrics.  In contrast, the original sounded like one big party, which is an ill-fitting treatment of a song about trying to stop one’s lover from leaving.  The track is made all the more sweeter by Kruass’ angelic vocals, and by the expert instrumental backup of Union Station.  The song went on to win Krauss a well-deserved Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.

Grade:  A

 

Reba McEntire, “Cathy’s Clown” (Everly Brothers)
1989 | #1

Where it goes right:  It’s extremely effective as a reinterpretation, as McEntire slows the song down to an emotional ballad, and tweaks the lyrics to fit her feminine perspective.  Did I mention that she also gives a mighty fine vocal performance?

Where it goes wrong:  The production is a bit watered-down, which was not unusual for Reba’s late eighties and early nineties output.

Grade:  B+

 

Pam Tillis, “When You Walk In the Room” (Jackie DeShannon)
1994 | #2

Where it goes right:  Tillis could hardly have chosen a better song to countrify, as the lyric about a nervous encounter with an old flame fits right in with classic country music.  She even tweaked the instrumental opening so as to be better suited for the steel guitar, which demonstrates her strong commitment to the country genre.

Grade:  A

 

Travis Tritt, “Take It Easy” (The Eagles)
1994 | #21

Where it goes right:  The Eagles were about the countriest rock band you’d ever meet, and did a great deal to influence the evolution of country sounds and styles, so they were a fitting candidate for an all-country tribute album.  The centerpiece of the collection was honky-tonker Travis Tritt’s version of “Take It Easy” – an energetic performance that had even more body than the original, but that still felt reverent toward the legendary group’s classic version.

Grade:  A

 

Conway Twitty, “The Rose” (Bette Midler)
1983 | #1

Where it goes right:  Nowhere.

Where it goes wrong:  Everywhere. (Can you say bad karaoke?)

Grade:  D

 

Jimmy Wayne, “Sara Smile” (Hall and Oates)
2009 | #31

Where it goes wrong:  To put it simply… reinterpreting a song does not mean simply “adding a banjo line.”  The fact that Hall and Oates even sing background vocals on this track only adds to the overall feeling of pointlessness.

Grade:  D+

 

Mark Wills, “Back at One” (Brian McKnight)
1999 | #2

Where it goes wrong:  If it made for an awfully cheesy pop song in the hands of Brian McKnight, it made a flat-out terrible country song when Mark Wills covered it a mere two months after the release of the McKnight version.  It’s a record characterized by superfluous genre-pandering steel guitar fills, and a lead vocal that sounds more occupied with grooving to the beat than making any sort of emotional connection.  The song peaked at #2, and then Wills tackled a Brandy song immediately afterwards.  Seriously, dude?

Grade:  C-

 

Dwight Yoakam, “Suspicious Minds” (Elvis Presley)
1992 | #35

Where it goes right:  Covering an Elvis song is a tall order, to say the least.  The fact that Yoakam’s version rivals the original, with its contemporized arrangement and knockout lead vocal, is hardly a small feat.

Grade:  A

 

What’s your take on these tunes?  What are your favorite cover songs?  What are your least favorite cover songs?

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Four Ways that 9/11 Changed Country Music

The terrorist attacks on American soil ten years ago changed the course of our nation’s history in far more significant ways than just its impact on country music.

But the fact is that country music was changed as well.  Here are the four biggest ways that it did, for better and for worse.

1. Alan Jackson Becomes a Legend

He was still getting solid radio airplay and record sales in 2001, but it seemed like his glory days were behind him. Then, he stepped on to the CMA Awards stage and debuted “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” to a stunned industry crowd on national television.

It was the perfect song by the perfect artist at the perfect time, and it launched an amazing return to the head of the pack.  The commercial success was great, but it’s worth noting that “Where Were You” served notice that he was undergoing an artistic renaissance as well.   The big hits that followed – “Drive (For Daddy Gene)”, “It’s Five O’ Clock Somewhere,” and “Remember When” – were the best of his career.  Heck, of anybody’s career.

2. Toby Keith Becomes a Superstar

On the same night that Jackson performed his instant classic, Toby Keith just sang his latest hit, the novelty number “I Wanna Talk About Me.”  But the following spring, he came out with the next quintessential post-9/11 anthem, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.”

While it didn’t lead to nearly the same level of artistic growth that Jackson experienced, it did launch Keith into the rarefied air of country superstardom.  For most of the next decade, he’d be an instant add at radio.  And if some of those hits made us wince, it was still great to see the finest male vocalist of his generation get his due.   For those of us who thought that he was robbed at radio and industry award shows in the nineties, it was rewarding to see him have his day.

3. The Politicization of Country Music

National unity began to fade in the run up to our invasion of Iraq, and country radio picked a side, much to the detriment of the format.  The shamelessly jingoistic “Have You Forgotten?” became a seven week #1 for Darryl Worley, while a criticism of President Bush wiped the Dixie Chicks off of the radio dial.

The upshot?  Country radio sent the message that if you weren’t on board with the Bush Administration, you better keep your mouth shut.   Then again, with Worley’s career fading soon after “Have You Forgotten?”, opening it was no guarantee for long-term success, either.

4. Female Domination of the Genre Evaporates

This was the worst of it.   Country record sales exploded in 2002, and the industry credited it to traditionalists Jackson and Keith.   Radio drew the conclusion that  listeners didn’t want any more pop-flavored country, despite the fact that two of the biggest selling albums of the year were by Shania Twain and Faith Hill.

Both ladies struggled at radio with their top-selling projects, and the careers of Lee Ann Womack and SHeDaisy nearly ended.   Even ten years later, with the top-selling artists being Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, most female artists are still struggling to get radio play.

 

 

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