Category Archives: Miscellaneous Musings

Say What? – Hillary Scott

From an interview with The Boston Globe, via Country California:

Country music has always been filled with artists who write their own songs. But I think in the ’80s and ’90s it went through a phase where everyone was recording songs written by other songwriters; which gives those songwriters great success and a way to provide for their families, but I think the fans also love to hear what the artist has to say from the artist’s mouth. And that’s, I think, one of the reasons why Taylor Swift has done such an amazing job and has been so successful, because she’s baring her heart to her fans and it’s so relatable.  – Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum

Where to begin? I’ll start with the fact that Scott is wrong on the merits. There were plenty of artists who wrote their own songs during the eighties and nineties, though the best ones had the good judgment to balance their best compositions with great songs written by others, rather than weaken an album by not recording outside material that’s superior to what they’ve written themselves.

I have more of an issue with the idea that today’s country artists have improved on what came before them with this supposedly new approach. I’m sorry, but today’s current crop of country stars are collectively less talented, less compelling, less interesting, and quite frankly, less capable with a pen, guitar, and microphone than even the B-list stars of the eighties and nineties.  There aren’t that many who can sing or write, let alone do both.

Study Taylor Swift for her marketing acumen. There’s a lesson to be learned there. But for all that is good and holy. please look to Randy Travis, Alan Jackson, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, and just about all of the other big eighties and nineties stars for how to produce good country music.   For Scott to think that her generation is actually improving the genre, she must either have remarkably bad taste in music, or a nineties record collection that runs no deeper than Linda Davis.

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Premium Label

September has a lot of album releases that I’m really enjoying or looking forward to. In fact, it’s the most lucrative month for music for my taste in quite some time.

Last Tuesday (September 7), Rounder Records released The SteelDrivers’ second album, Reckless (which is pretty spectacular, by the way) and this week, they will be releasing Robert Plant’s follow up to his 2007 collaborative album with Alison Krauss, also on Rounder. From the streaming preview that can be heard on NPR’s website until release day, the album is a wonderfully rootsy project helmed by Plant and Buddy Miller and includes guitar work from Darrell Scott. October will also finally see the release of Joe Diffie’s bluegrass album on the label.

When one learns that an album will be released through Rounder Records (which has recently been sold to Concord Music Group), it’s pretty much automatically expected that the project will be quality. Whether it’s The SteelDrivers, Robert Plant, Joe Diffie, John Mellancamp, Alison Krauss or Willie Nelson, it’s reasonable to assume certain aspects of a Rounder release, including that the album may even stray from a typical artist release to be more rootsy in approach, as is the case with the recent Willie Nelson and John Mellancamp albums, along with the upcoming Diffie project. More often than not, I can count on Rounder Records to please my musical sensibilities, even with unexpected artists, since I never expected that Robert Plant would be recording some of my favorite roots music.

As much as I love and count on Rounder Records to produce great music, my absolute favorite record company is Sugar Hill Records (owned by Vanguard Records). Incidentally, Joey+Rory will be releasing their anticipated second album through Sugar Hill on Tuesday (September 14). Additionally, Marty Stuart’s recent release, the excellent Ghost Train, was released through them as well. Other artist who have been associated with Sugar Hill include, but are not limited to: Nickel Creek, Ricky Skaggs, Guy Clark, Dolly Parton, Darrell Scott, Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, The Duhks, Sarah Jarosz, and the list goes on. As with Rounder Records, many artists seem to release albums with Sugar Hill as a deviation from the music for which they are most popularly associated, as is the case with Dolly Parton, Ricky Skaggs, and even Rodney Crowell, who released his venerable The Houston Kid on the label.

Right now, it seems that my favorite record labels aren’t in the business of releasing music that we hear on mainstream country radio, though Joey+Rory are attempting to crack through. While I don’t have the inside knowledge to say that it doesn’t exist, we don’t hear about the red tape and politics that is ever present with major companies like, lets say, the infamous Curb Records, which has produced some rather publicly disgruntled artists, most notably Tim McGraw and the two Living Hank Williamses.

But when I was a kid, MCA Records was the label that seemed like the powerhouse record company for country music to me. Some of my favorite artists were on that label, including Trisha Yearwood, George Strait, Reba McEntire and, of course, Vince Gill. I admired the country roster of Arista as well, which included Alan Jackson, Diamond Rio, Radney Foster, and Blackhawk.

Along with reminding you about some good releases that have recently been released and will soon be available, this is the very long and self-indulgent way of getting to the question of:

What is the record label that you most admire and can count on to release your favorite music?

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Filed under Americana, Conversations, Features, Miscellaneous Musings

Back to School

Another summer has come and gone.  For those of you headed back into the classroom, here’s some helpful advice from some country music stars:

1. Avoid social stereotypes.

The girl in the bleachers might be your dream girl…

…and overlooking that guy with the guitar can come back and haunt you.

2.  Always finish your reading assignments.

Especially if you’re gonna write about what you read.

3. Math Class is important, too.

4. Sometimes passing notes can be a good thing.

5. Work hard, but keep your worries in check.

It’ll all work out in the end…

…as long as you stay in school.

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CMA 2010: Female Trouble

It’s pretty rare that the CMA nominations garner much attention outside of the country music press, but the always excellent Whitney Pastorek at Entertainment Weekly has a lengthy article trying to rationalize the exclusion of Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift from the Entertainer category.

It’s amazing that in a year where a record was set for the most nominations by a female artist, there can still be a valid accusation of gender bias among the nominations.  Women have been poorly represented in the Entertainer category for pretty much the entire history of the CMA Awards.  Even when you include duos or groups with female members, there have never been more than two out of five nominees that are women.

Never. Think about that for a minute. If this category’s nominees are to be considered reliable, the CMA is essentially saying that there has never been a time in the past 44 years that more than two of the genre’s top five acts have been female, and in the past decade, there’s never been more than one.

Why is this coming to a head this year, when it’s been a problem all along?  Because there is no rational argument that exists, in this era of decreased record sales and economic downturn, for the exclusion of Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift from this category.  Ironically, the inclusion of another female artist – Miranda Lambert – makes the oversight even more obvious.  By any historical standard for this category, Lambert would be jockeying for fourth or fifth place, at best.

With all due respect to Brad Paisley and Keith Urban, their success this year would not get them into this category if they were women. Yet two women who have far exceeded them this year by every measurable standard, two women who are more immediately recognizable and widely beloved than Paisley and Urban have ever been, are left off of the list.

There’s a bias here, and it’s hurting the credibility of the CMA. How is it possible that acts long past their prime, like Brooks & Dunn or Vince Gill, were still getting Entertainer nominations regularly, yet superstars like Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Taylor Swift only made the cut once?  Has there truly been no woman besides Reba McEntire in the last 25 years who has been one of the five top entertainers more than once?

Even if you strain your reason to justify Swift’s exclusion because she was a little less visible during the last three months of the eligibility period, the Underwood snub is the most blatantly unfair this category has seen since the days of Shania Twain, who somehow only earned one nomination while she was absolutely destroying the competition at an international level that has never been matched.

Perhaps the voting methodology of the CMA awards, which allows voters to pick up to five nominees in each category, has exacerbated the “token female” dilemma.  I don’t know, and I really don’t care. Because in an era where even the ACM Awards are showing better taste than the CMA’s, the flagship organization of country music needs to address its female trouble while it still has a single shred of credibility left.

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The Nineties All Over Again

The new country music stars of the nineties grew up with the pop/rock of the seventies.  It’s no wonder that many of them revisited songs from that era.

Some of these covers became big hits, like Billy Dean’s “We Just Disagree” and  Brooks & Dunn’s “My Maria.”   Various album cuts and tribute projects demonstrated Lorrie Morgan’s fondness for Bonnie Tyler (“It’s a Heartache”), Garth Brooks’ love for Kiss (“Hard Luck Woman”), and more than a dozen artists’ affinity for the Eagles.

It’s just a matter of time before today’s country stars start remaking pop and rock hits from the nineties.  Here’s a few that I think would work well:

Rascal Flatts, “One More Try”

This Timmy T. hit topped the charts in 1991.  It would be a perfect fit for the Flatts boys. They could elevate it into something great.

Carrie Underwood, “Nothing Compares 2 U”

You need a powerful set of pipes to pull this one off. Who could do it better than Carrie Underwood?  Okay, yes. Wynonna. But among the artists on the radio dial today, no one could tackle this with better results than Underwood.

SHeDaisy, “You’re in Love”

This band could cover just about any Wilson Phillips track, but this one’s dying to be a hit all over again.

What nineties non-country songs do you think today’s country stars should cover?

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Carrie Underwood and Female Country Artists: A Historical Perspective

I’ve always been something of a chart junkie. While I don’t pay as close attention as I used to, I still have a pretty good handle on historical trends. One artist I’ve been keeping an eye on is Carrie Underwood. When each official country single from her first two albums peaked at #1 or #2, it caught my attention.

But I never expected the trend to continue, with three more #1 hits from the new album. The source of that belief was the history of women on country radio, especially in the twenty most recent years that were based on actual monitored airplay instead of radio playlists. Since that change, far less records have gone #1 or #2.

When “Undo It” reached #2 last week, Underwood became the only female artist in country music history to have eleven consecutive top two singles. Until then, she was tied with Tammy Wynette, who scored ten consecutive top two singles from 1967-1970. All but one of Wynette’s singles were #1 hits, with the only #2 being “I’ll See Him Through.” With “Undo It” moving to #1 this week, Underwood has only two singles in her streak that didn’t top the charts: “Don’t Forget to Remember Me” and “I Told You So.”

“Undo It” is Underwood’s tenth #1 single. How rare is it for a female to reach that milestone? The last woman to reach it was Rosanne Cash, her tenth #1 being “Runaway Train” in the fall of 1988. Earlier that same year, Reba McEntire scored her tenth #1 with “Love Will Find Its Way To You.”

Underwood’s support at radio is unprecedented for a female artist in the modern chart era. In less than five years, she’s already tied for the most #1′s since 1990, and she’s moving quickly up the all-time list as well:

Most #1 Hits by a Female Artist – Monitored Era (1990-present):

  1. Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood – 10
  2. Faith Hill – 9
  3. Shania Twain – 7
  4. Jo Dee Messina – 6
  5. Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood – 5
  6. Sara Evans, Patty Loveless, Taylor Swift, Wynonna – 4

Most #1 Hits by a Female Artist – All-Time:

  1. Dolly Parton – 25
  2. Reba McEntire – 23
  3. Tammy Wynette – 20
  4. Crystal Gayle – 18
  5. Loretta Lynn – 16
  6. Rosanne Cash – 11
  7. Anne Murray, Tanya Tucker, Carrie Underwood – 10

Why do you think that Underwood has been the one to push up against country radio’s glass ceiling so much? Can she keep this up?  Will she eventually get to the top of each list, or is there somebody below her that might jump ahead?

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Twenty Minutes With Country Radio

Radio has never been my primary way of receiving country music. Growing up in NYC, we had a decent country station in 103.5 WYNY. But 24-hour CMT was better, back in the days when it played everything from the hot new artists to the legends to Canadian imports in roughly equal rotation. By the time that the station folded, I was heading to Nashville and attending college.  By the time I was back to NYC, the internet had replaced the video outlets as my preferred method of discovering new music.

But radio is the way most country fans have discovered new music for generations now. So why not give it another try? Normally, I wouldn’t, but as we began an overnight drive up the east coast, I was growing weary of the easy listening station that was on. Air Supply will do that to you. So I went up to the next station, and the radio displayed that it was a country station.

The sound, however, was virtually identical to the seventies and eighties light rock I’d been listening to already. By the chorus, I was able to discern that what I mistook for a lesser Gordon Lightfoot was actually Zac Brown Band. “Highway 20 Ride” was the song. Not bad, but kind of faceless and generic in that Seventies Gold way.

Things went downhill quickly. The next record was that Steve Holy hit “Brand New Girlfriend”, which sounds just as clever now as it did back then. Interpret that as you will. Then Eric Church sang about a girl who was “Hell on the Heart”, and Lee Brice screamed about some people who chose to “Love Like Crazy.”

Finally, an artist that I liked came on. Tim McGraw. Singing “One two three, like a bird I sing,” the start of his worst post-Everywhere single, “Last Dollar (Fly Away).” Suddenly, a feature that had begun as “An Hour With Country Radio” became “one more bad song and I’m plugging in the iPod.”

Then I heard the gentle intro to Alan Jackson’s “Remember When.” I actually do like country music, I’m reminded. And I can hear this song and more on my iPod. Cutting my losses before Taylor Swift or Danny Gokey surfaced, I said a quiet thank you to Steve Jobs and switched from FM to AUX.

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We’ll Drink to That

Today is the 21st birthday of our very own Dan Milliken, who can now indulge in one of country music’s favorite past times without breaking the law.

In honor of this occasion, we’ve decided to dedicate some of our favorite songs on that subject to the birthday guy.

Leeann:

I don’t drink, but I do love me a good drinking song. In fact, I love so many drinking songs that it’s impossible for me to narrow it down to just one favorite. So, I decided to put my iPod on shuffle and discuss/recommend the first one that popped up, which happens to be “I Drink”, recorded by both Blake Shelton and Bill Chambers and co-written and also recorded by Americana favorite, Mary Gauthier.

If people know “I Drink”, it’s likely due to Blake Shelton’s version from Barn and Grill. It’s a good version, but I prefer the versions from Bill Chambers and/or Mary Gauthier, because they provide the grittiness and moroseness that properly conveys the quiet resignation that the song requires. Therefore, this one’s not a party anthem.

From a grown child’s perspective, the act of drinking is passed down like a tradition. Just as “fish swim, birds fly, daddy’s yell, mama’s cry, old men sit and think”, the grown child proclaims, “I drink.” And that’s just that.

Kevin:

I’m going to go all meta and recommend two songs that are as much about getting older as they are about drinking. Kenny Chesney’s “Beer in Mexico”, which has him pondering why he’s not happy with where is in his life so far. And Rodney Crowell’s “Song For the Life”, which finds him not drinking as much as he used to, perhaps because he’s very happy with where he is in his life so far!

Recommend your favorite drinking song for Dan in the comments. Oh, and wish him a happy birthday too, if you like!

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Songs For Dad

My dad was passionate about many things, and in my memory, he’s defined by two of them: c0llecting vintage toys and loving music.   Earlier today, my mother and I attended Toy Story 3.  He loved the first two films, and it was a way to get closer to him in spirit this Father’s Day.

I couldn’t let this day end without using my humble little corner of the internet to celebrate some of his favorite songs.  A love for country music was something that my father shared with my mother, and thanks to long car trips as  child, this love eventually rubbed off on me.  This morning, my mother put on the country classics Music Choice channel and it was playing their song: “Blanket on the Ground” by Billie Jo Spears.

It’s one of those songs that always seemed to be on the mix tapes that my parents listened to.  But there are a wealth of country hits that I associate with just Dad.  Some of them I always loved. Some of them I didn’t care for at the time. Some I openly disdained and wished he’d never play again.  All of them are now among my favorites because they remind me of him.

So in honor of Father’s Day, here are some of my Dad’s favorite country songs.  Share your dad’s favorites in the comments!

Alan Jackson, “Livin’ On Love”

From my mom’s point of view, K.T. Oslin’s “Hold Me” perfectly encapsulated their marriage.  For my dad, it was “Livin’ On Love.”

Clint Black, “Nobody’s Home”

My dad loved Clint Black, especially his first two albums.  This was the hit he played to death when Killin’ Time was his album of choice.

Johnny Cash, “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky”

Sure, my dad loved “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Five Feet High and Rising.” But he also loved Cash’s campier hits, like “One Piece at a Time” and this chestnut.

Dixie Chicks, “Travelin’ Soldier”

No matter what was going on in the room, my dad would stop what he was doing to watch this video.  As a Navy veteran, this song really hit home for him.

Dwight Yoakam, “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere”

Another guy that Dad couldn’t get enough of.  This was a song that I thought he played too much, never caring for it at the time. Now it’s one of my favorites of his.

John Anderson, “Seminole Wind”

He bought the album for “Straight Tequila Night”, but this quickly emerged as one of his all-time favorite songs.

John Conlee, “Common Man”

I do believe that I’d never have discovered this great vocalist if his greatest hits set wasn’t one of the very first CDs my father purchased. I still remember the “Priceless Music Priced Less” logo on the front.

Johnny Horton, “Sink the Bismarck”

Another hits collection dad played the heck out of. I always thought this was Horton’s biggest hit because Dad played it so much. I remember being shocked to find “Honky Tonk Man”, which I knew as a Dwight Yoakam song, was on there, too.

Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler”

He didn’t care for the man’s love songs or most of his pop hits, but he had this album on vinyl and I only remember hearing him play the title track.

Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard, “Pancho and Lefty”

Another one of Dad’s first CD purchases. I always thought the opening music sounded like a TV theme song.

Marty Robbins, “Big Iron”

Dad loved the Western subgenre of country music, at least as performed by Marty Robbins.

And finally, it’s not a country song, but it was his favorite song, and I’ll forever associate it with him. Amazing how I used to groan when I heard him playing it on our living room jukebox again, and now I never get tired of it because it’s him.

The Beach Boys, “Sloop John B.”

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The Susan Boyle Factor

Entertainment Weekly has an excellent post up today: 15 Ways to Fix American Idol.

While I agree with all of their suggestions, I think there are some even better ideas that didn’t make the list.  Perhaps this is why some ideas were overlooked:

CAST A MORE DIVERSE GROUP OF SEMIFINALISTS
Considering the stunning success of season 4′s Carrie Underwood, it’s baffling that Idol has done a lackluster job of casting country-oriented females in five subsequent seasons (not counting season 8′s tragically overlooked Mishavonna Henson, that is!).

Carrie Underwood is not the reality contestant turned superstar that should be used as the model to revamp Idol.  The producers captured lightning in a bottle that season.  A beautiful young woman with flawless vocal control and a clear understanding of who she wants to be as an artist? If it was as easy as an open casting call to find more like Underwood, there wouldn’t be a conversation about fixing Idol in the first place.

But there is an artist that could teach both American Idol and Nashville record executives three big lessons: Susan Boyle.

Lesson #1: Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number.

Idol’s insistence on capping the age of contestants below thirty means the Susan Boyles of our country can’t even get a foot in the door. Why was her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” so powerful?  Because at age 47, she’s old enough to have lived it.

As Boyle proves, a reality show can provide a shot at stardom for those who’d never get the chance in the traditional way, as labels rarely sign artists who are older than thirty.  Instead of limiting auditions to those who fit the traditional age range that record execs look for, Idol should open it up to those who’d never get a record deal the old-fashioned way, even if they deserved it.

No label honcho would ever look at Susan Boyle and think, “That woman is going to sell more albums than anybody else this year.” But that’s just what she did, moving 4 million albums in the U.S. alone. The audience saw her and fell in love.  That can’t happen with more artists like her if we never get the chance to hear them.

Leson #2:  Try a Little Tenderness.

One of the reasons Boyle’s audition struck such a nerve was the setup.  We’ve been conditioned for years to laugh at the Susan Boyles.  Idol’s audition episodes are top heavy with them. I’m one of many people who can’t even watch the early rounds anymore because they’re so mean.  But when I did watch them, I was always hoping for the happy ending that never came.

Are there people who don’t have the talent that they think they do? Certainly. But what is gained by roughing them up for sport?  The cruelty line was crossed long ago.  I suspect that Idol’s lower ratings this season have a lot to do with that.

If you’re going to have a singing competition, just focus on the singing.  If a singing hopeful  has no chance at making it to Hollywood, give the screen time to those who do.

Lesson #3: Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder.

Most Idol contestants, along with most new country artists, are conventionally beautiful. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it seems hard to believe that none of the “not conventionally beautiful” artists out there have the talent to warrant an Idol slot or a record deal.

Consider this quote:

People might see me at a gathering and say, “God, she’s an awkward girl,” or “She’s not really a looker, is she? But if I sang to them, I knew I could outshine any girl in the room. – Pam Tillis, 1992

I personally think that  Tillis is beautiful, but who knows how many doors didn’t open for her because she didn’t fit the mold.  Would she even have a chance if she came on to the scene today? How many future legends will never be because of our narrow definition of beauty?

Susan Boyle didn’t fit the mold, but by some small miracle, she was given the shot to share her talent with the world.  More artists like her need to get that opportunity. Perhaps if the top 24 wasn’t stacked with 24 year-olds every season, they’d have a better chance.

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