Category Archives: Miscellaneous Musings

Where’ve You Been? – 2011 Edition

It’s hard to believe that there once was a time that country artists put out two full-length albums a year.  If they were part of a regular superstar duet team, like Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn or Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton, a fan might hear as many as four new studio albums from their favorite artist.

By the time that I got into country music – twenty years ago, natch – things had slowed down a bit.  Artists usually released a new album every 12-18 months.  Sometimes they’d push it to two years, but not often.

Those were the days.  Waits between album releases have gotten crazy lately.  I’m all for taking the time to get it right, but once we push past the half-decade mark, things have gone too far.  Sure, we’re given side projects to carry us over, but there’s no substitute for a full-length studio album of all-new material.

Here are five artists who I’d really love to see make a long-awaited return with a new album in 2011, along with a brief rundown of the side projects that they’ve been busy with while we’ve waited for that new album:

Shania Twain

Last Studio Album: Up! (2002)

Side Projects: Greatest Hits (2005), featuring four new tracks; contributions to a Dolly Parton tribute album, a live Willie Nelson album, an Anne Murray duet album, and the Desperate Housewives soundtrack.

It’s been over eight years since Twain released that 19-track opus. It was cool that she released the album in three different mixes, essentially giving us 57 new mp3s for the iPods we didn’t even have yet. Of all the superstar acts, she’s the one who has been away the longest.

Wynonna

Last Studio Album: What the World Needs (2003)

Side Projects: Live album, Christmas album, covers album, Cracker Barrel album…

In a sense, she’s never really gone away. But despite being a fixture in the media and releasing so many other-type albums, we haven’t gotten a real studio set from Wynonna in over seven years. Given that the last one was among the finest in her career, it’s a shame she has yet to craft another mainstream country album.

Dwight Yoakam

Last Studio Album: Blame the Vain (2005)

Side Projects: A Buck Owens tribute album in 2007, Dwight Sings Buck.

The most distressing absence on the list, mostly because he’s been so prolific in the past. Movie appearances are keeping him busy. Here’s hoping that when he does return, we get more than ten songs.

Dixie Chicks

Last Studio Album: Taking the Long Way (2006)

Side Projects: “The Neighbor”, from the Shut Up & Sing documentary; contributions to a Tony Bennett duet project; Emily and Martie’s Court Yard Hounds set; Natalie’s duet with Neil Diamond.

It’s hard to follow up an album that wins a bunch of Grammys, but it’s not like they haven’t done so before. If they’re insisting on writing all of the next album, it could be gestating for a very long time. Can’t we get a Patty Griffin or Darrell Scott covers album to hold us over?

Vince Gill

Last Studio Album: These Days (2006)

Side Projects: A mother lode of duet and harmony appearances on other artist’s albums (Reba McEntire, Charlie Daniels, Amy Grant, Clay Aiken…)

Gill’s last album was a four discs worth of new material, so it’s understandable that it would take a couple of years for him to craft a new one. But we’re going on five now. Since Gill was able to create those four discs a mere three years after his previous studio set (2003’s Next Big Thing), we should be due for a new album soon.

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2011 Singles: A Wish List

The bulk of our work at Country Universe this month has been catching up on singles currently at radio.  Collectively, they’ve been abysmal, with review grades rarely reaching a B, let alone an A.

How can we turn this around? Here are five songs that I’d love to see sent to radio tomorrow.  Share your own in the comments!

Zac Brown Band, “Let it Go”

A dizzying dose of positivity, with a few great musical twists to boot.  The Serenity Prayer never sounded so good.

Court Yard Hounds, “Ain’t No Son”

The only truly country song on their album. The only truly great song on their album.

Toby Keith, “In a Couple of Days”

It’s easy to take Keith for granted, so consistent are his vocals and song structures.  Usually, its his lyrics that trip him up. It’s his heartbroke ballads, like this gem, that showcase his talent best.

Reba McEntire, “The Day She Got Divorced”

Country singers used to sing about people like this all the time.  Flawed anti-heroines like this don’t come along too often anymore.

Carrie Underwood, “Change”

I suspect those with more refined tastes than mine are clamoring for “Someday When I Stop Loving You”, an admittedly beautiful ballad, but this is the track I’m returning to the most from Play On. I think it captures the nagging cynicism that prevents many of us from fully embracing our inner benevolence.

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New Year’s Resolutions

We’re in that wonderful period of time where we convince ourselves that all of our 2010 coulda woulda shouldas will be transformed into 2011’s totally gonnas.

In that spirit, I submit the following blogger resolutions:

1. Daily posts, come rain, snow, or sleet sloth, indifference, or better things to do.

2. Start 100 Greatest Men.  Rankings done, but oh boy, is it a lot of writing!

3. Write about the nineties, eighties, and seventies so much that readers think we’ve gone back in time.

4. Continue being diplomatic to the almost-stars of yesteryear, until they mess with Ben Foster.

5. Take being the weakest writer on my own staff as motivation to do better! I’m gunnin’ for all y’all in 2011.

What are your New Year’s Resolutions for 2011?

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Sincerity

Earlier this year, a discussion with a colleague of mine revealed a mutual affinity for country music. It was a typical conversation that I have with fans that are around my age. We fell in love with the music about twenty years ago, don’t think it’s quite as good as it once was, but can find a lot of things to like from just about any era, including the current one.

So in the 2010 version of making a mix tape, I offered to load up her iPod with a whole bunch of country music. A week later, she took me to dinner as a thank you. We started talking about the music that I’d passed on to her, and she told me that she was listening to the iPod while mowing the lawn. Suddenly, a song came on that made her cry. Full-out cry, mind you, not just a tear or two.

So I ask if it was “Love, Me”, or maybe “Where’ve You Been”, or something similarly tragic. She was almost embarrassed as she told me that it was the old Anne Murray hit, “You Needed Me.”

Now, there are a few possible reactions to this. I suspect for many or even most, it will be either befuddlement or outright derision. But me? I totally understood why that song would have such a strong impact, and I can best describe it in one word: Sincerity.

It’s the bane of the cynic’s existence, and of many critics as well. You don’t see Anne Murray pop up on too many lists when discussing the greatest country artists of all time, or even the greatest pop-country singers of all time, even though she’s definitely both.  Ditto for Kenny Rogers and my once future wife Olivia Newton-John, who also fit well into both categories.

But there are some artists who exude sincerity and still are treated with reverence, like Loretta Lynn and Alan Jackson.  What makes them different?  I think it’s the added perception of authenticity that differentiates them from the artists above.

Take Dolly Parton as a case study. Rare is the critic or country music historian who doesn’t speak highly of both her pre-1976 and post-1999 output, where her music was firmly grounded in her mountain roots.  But her pop era – roughly 1977-1986 – is widely maligned.  The sincerity is there all the way throughout her career, whether it’s delivering the brilliant working class social commentary present in both “In the Good Old Days” and “9 to 5″, or when she’s just being hopelessly maudlin, be it with “Daddy Come and Get Me” or “Me and Little Andy.”

I think that she gets less credit for that period because there’s a sense that she’s being something that she’s not, that the authenticity is lacking.  When you think someone is being inauthentic in their sincerity, it’s hard for some to embrace them.  I think that I’m in the minority in that I don’t care much if someone is authentic, so long as they’re sincere.

Where things fall apart for me are when I perceive authenticity without being able to sense the sincerity in the performances. This is my major issue with many of the more traditional artists today. I think Jamey Johnson, Gretchen Wilson, and Brad Paisley are completely authentic in their music. They are who they say they are, and such. But I have trouble getting into them because they don’t come off as genuinely sincere.

It’s hard to articulate this, but to use Paisley as an example, he often sounds to my ears like he’s emotionally divorced from what he’s singing. The brain is plugged in, but I don’t feel the heart.   I loved, loved, loved “Letter to Me” because his voice cracked with emotion. I felt the sincerity that I don’t feel when I hear “Anything Like Me” or “Little Moments.”

Meanwhile, Carrie Underwood can rarely do wrong with me because she drips with sincerity, something that was prevalent even during her embryonic Idol days, but has really come into play with her writing so much of her material.  “Change” is my favorite song she’s done so far, not just because I fully agree with the message, but that she sings it with such sincerity. Does she live out the message in her own life?  I have no idea.  But her performance is so powerful to my ears that it being her authentic life story is as irrelevant to me as the fact that Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon aren’t really a death row convict and a Catholic nun, respectively.

Sincerity over authenticity, if I have to choose.  Both are great to have, but the former is more essential than the latter in the music that I love the most. It may be a meaningless distinction in the end, but it’s the only explanation I can come up with for me usually liking songs much better by great singers than by the original songwriters, and for Laura Bell Bundy getting so much more play on my iPod than Taylor Swift, the most genuinely authentic teen star ever.  Or at least since Lesley Gore.

With that all said, how about we listen to some Anne Murray? She’s awesome.

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Friday Afternoon Bewilderment

Ever had a really long week, and you’re all tired. Then you see something that you simply can’t believe exists, and think your fatigue must be playing tricks on you?

I’m going to bed.

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Gratitude

Growing up, Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday, and it’s still pretty high up there today. When I was younger, I loved it because it was the one day out of the year that the extended family was all in one place, gathered around what seemed like an endless table. Those days are long gone, so now I appreciate the concept as much as the actual day.

For one day a year, people actually take the time to reflect on what they’re thankful for and verbalize it. I wish we could make it a semi-annual event, maybe add another three or four day weekend.  Who wouldn’t be grateful for that?

So before you dust off those Christmas records and put them in rotation – or in Leann’s case, just put them to the side for a few minutes – share with us your favorite song that expresses gratitude.

My country favorite is definitely “Why Me” by Kris Kristofferson, though I’m just as partial to the Johnny Cash version.

But if I’m going to pick overall favorite, this is the one that best captures my perspective.  Doesn’t hurt that I never get enough of that voice.

What are your favorite gratitude songs?

Oh, and I’d be remiss not to add that today is the birthday of Tara Seetharam, one of my favorite people in the world and a talent that I know all of us at CU are grateful for, colleagues and community members alike!

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About Taylor Swift

Dear Country Music,

Don’t get too excited about Taylor Swift’s sales numbers. They have nothing to do with you.

She’s a tween pop star at her peak. These numbers are normal.  Just ask the Backstreet Boys.

Now, Jason Aldean? He’s all yours.

Hope you like possum for dinner.

All the Best,

Kevin

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Sleepless Nights

I usually sleep pretty well.  In bed by 9, up by 5.   But last night, it didn’t work so well.  I was up by 2:30 instead!

This episode, coupled with recently watching a very long and very entertaining documentary called Elm Street Legacy has me thinking about sleepless nights. Besides the obvious classic that this post title references, what do you think are the best songs about not being able to sleep?

My pick is Keith Urban’s “You’ll Think of Me.”  The sleepless night is used as a springboard for the rest of the song: “I woke up early this morning around 4 am, with the moon shining bright as headlights on the interstate. I pulled the covers over my head and tried to catch some sleep, but thoughts of us kept keeping me awake.”

It’s such a vivid picture and really sets the tone for the rest of the song.

What’s your pick?

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Pop Goes the Country

The new Sugarland album is a failure. Of this, I am sure.  But as I wrote in my review, the problem isn’t that they made an eighties rock album. It’s that they didn’t make a good one.

Which got me thinking about others who made pop or rock albums after building a fan base as a country artist.  Sometimes it works, and their pop/rock music is as good or better than what they did under the country umbrella.

So I ask this question:

What artist did the best job of transition from country to pop?

I can think of quite a few, but I’m going to start with a less obvious one, since her Aussie/English roots make her easy to overlook. And also because I keep putting off a Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists feature on her.

Olivia Newton-John started off as a folk-type singer, but her first two million-selling singles were country to the core. She won her first Grammy in the category of Best Female Country Vocal Performance, earning the honor for her breakthrough single “Let Me Be There.”

She went on to have three #1 country albums and a few top ten singles, and was named the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year in 1974. That same year, she was the second woman (after Loretta Lynn) to be noninated for Entertainer of the Year.  Everyone from Loretta Lynn to Donna Fargo covered her hits.

Songs like the very country “Let it Shine” made in impact on fhe pop, AC, and country charts, but like Carrie Underwood did with “Before He Cheats”, Newton-John crossed over in spite of the country arrangements, not by making pop music and calling it country:

But Hollywood came calling, and her starring role in the film Grease required her to sing pure pop/rock.  But she didn’t abandon the country format entirely.  In fact, the soundtrack contained a new song specifically tailored for the country market, even though it did better on the pop charts when released. But “Hopelessly Devoted to You” has a steel guitar that can’t be ignored:

Even on her next album, Totally Hot, she continued to record country music, scoring her last real country hit with “Dancin’ Round and ‘Round.”

After that, it was pretty much all pop, and she so successfully transitioned into that format that she became more popular than ever. Not a bad second act for a woman who was the most popular female country artist of the mid-seventies.  But I’d argue that her pop music was better as well, perhaps because I bought this 45 so many times, always having to replace a worn out copy:

Which country artists do you think segued into other genres most effectively?  Who would you like to see try?

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Fiddle and Steel Guitar

Dear Country Music,

More fiddle and steel guitar, please.

Fiddle and steel guitar make country music sound better.

That’s all for today.

Love,

Kevin

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