“Me and the Wildwood Rose” was always one of my favorite Carlene Carter tracks. Back when the original recording was released in 1990, it had a wistful nostalgia for the grandmother that she had lost. In 2014, all of the other folks mentioned in the song, including her little sister “the Wildwood Rose”, have also passed on. The new version is so heavy with grief, it is only Carter’s effervescent spirit that keeps it from being too heavy.
Speaking of grief, Rodney Crowell’s “God I’m Missing You” is a gut-wrencher. Widows don’t often get the chance to speak in pure poetry: “Time stretches to shape you right out of thin air. But it can’t hold the image. If I blink, you’re not there. God I’m missing you.” For me, it’s the highlight of an excellent album, with his best songwriting since The Outsider. Lucinda Williams recorded it before him, and she does it well.
Parton’s latest set is a welcome return to form, and it features compelling covers of songs by Bob Dylan and Bon Jovi. But the highlight for me is “Banks of the Ohio”, an oft-recorded standard that she breathes new life into by framing it with a narrative device that has her retelling the story being told to her. This allows for Parton to speak in the male voice of the murderer, and still infuse the song with her trademark empathy. (She’s never shied away from a suicide number, but homicide really isn’t her style.)
So we still have to wait from some country lady besides Olivia Newton-John to fully embrace the murderess within her, but until then, the stunning harmonies and heartfelt vocal of Parton has newly minted this treasured classic.
That’s what I’m listening to. What are you listening to?
My Pick: Carrie Underwood, “Do You Think About Me”
The first two singles from Blown Away have been dramatic affairs, where the production is as much the star as the vocalist. I’ve found both “Good Girl” and “Blown Away” to be very compelling singles, but I’m jonesing for a simpler showcase of Underwood’s incomparable vocals.
“Do You Think About Me” is thematically similar to “Strawberry Wine”, but it’s heavier on nostalgia for the actual relationship and is refreshingly indifferent to any innocence lost. It’s a crisply produced record that allows the melody to remain front and center. It’s one of those records that makes me smile every time I hear it.
What do you think should be the next single sent to radio from a current country album?
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.
Lately, I’ve been all about upbeat, positive music.
I know that this is a reflection of my general mood these days. I’m optimistic by nature, but I feel like life’s been abundantly good lately after a pretty tough run. Given my lifelong connection to music, it’s no surprise that I’m seeking out happy music, skipping past the sad songs that I used to linger on back in the day.
Needless to say, I’ve been skipping a lot of country songs. I’ve listened to more pop in the past couple of months than I have in years. I want my country fix, but I have no interest in downers right now.
Can anybody recommend some country tracks that are just a bucket full of sunshine?
I’m sure many of our readers listen to genres beyond country music. Heck, you can listen to genres other than country music on country radio itself these days.
Tonight, we’re asking you to recommend a track that you love which is not even close to being country music. Bonus points for those of you who get as far away from country music as possible.
I’m recommending a song that’s been in heavy rotation for me since a friend of mine tipped me off about it: “Empire State of Mind”, by Jay- Z and Alicia Keys.
Songs about New York City are nothing new, but rarely are they done this well. This isn’t a song about somebody who moves to New York to find themselves. It’s a song about the visceral experience of someone “New York City born and raised”, as Neil Diamond once sang in “I Am…I Said.”
What the heck. I recommend them both!
Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind”
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.
Coal, I realized that, perhaps, the most important aspect to creating a themed play list was the ability to find some obscure songs to include with all those well-known classics. While Merle Travis’s “Dark as a Dungeon” as performed at Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash and Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” as performed by Patty Loveless are two of my personal favorite coal miner songs—they are already in heavy rotation on several of my play lists and are drawn from albums I listen to regularly.
Ashley Monroe’s “Canary,” which can be unearthed on This is My America Volume 2, is the kind of hidden gem that often can be missed even by those paying close attention to the movements of country music. Similar in tone to classic coal mining songs but delivered with modern sensibilities “Canary” most closely resembles what I wish “radio friendly” country sounded like—it isn’t traditional but it feels like country music. Plus, it fits well between my more traditional favorites, providing some variety for myself and perhaps a surprise to anyone listening along.
Recommendation: Ashley Monroe’s “Canary,” from This is My America Volume 2.
What hidden gems covering traditional country music subject matter (murder, drinking, ect.) would you recommend? Alternatively, what coal mining songs would you recommend?
While I know it goes against the proper album listening experience, my favorite way to listen to my iPod is to put it on shuffle and see what pops up. It’s like my own personal radio station without the commercials, talking and music that I dislike. So, today I’m going to put my iPod on shuffle and list ten country songs that I would comfortably recommend to you. In the comments, you can do the same for us.
#1 Steve Earle, “City of Immigrants”
Here is Steve’s tribute to New York City, a city of immigrants. I’m a sucker for this song that celebrates such diversity. The lending of acoustic and world sounds that are employed here is sonically pleasing as well.
#2 The Be Good Tanyas, “The Coo Coo Bird”
This is a haunting sounding song thanks to funky fiddle riffs, intriguing baseline and soft percussive support.
#3 Patty Loveless, “Don’t Toss Us Away”
This is one of my favorite Loveless songs from her early years. It’s a plea not to throw away a relationship despite the hardships. Of course, with Patty, it’s going to maintain a nice progressive traditional sound.
#4 Trent Summar & the New Row Mob, “Louisville Nashville Line”
Nice! I was hoping something from this group would pop up. Thanks to Country California’s recommendation, they’re one of my favorite discoveries of 2009 so far. This country rocker chugs along at an addictive pace, as is the case with many of the songs on the album. I love it.
#5 Trisha Yearwood, “Cowboys Are My Weakness”
Most of you already know this song, but it came up on the shuffle and I still recommend it. Yearwood slides in this song that would be perfect for Suzy Bogguss with such joyous ease that it’s impossible not to get caught up in the infatuation right along with her.
#6 Sweethearts of the Rodeo, “Beautiful Lies”
Their two Sugar Hill albums are excellent. This sister duo harmonize like only family members can do on this song about a woman who buys into her lover’s constant lies, since they were easier to hear than the truth in his eyes.
#7 Vince Gill, “Old Time Fiddle”
Considering the amount of Vince Gill songs I have on my iPod compared to any other artist, there’s simply no probable way that an iPod shuffle session could pass without a Vince song showing up. I love this raucous Cajun flavored fiddle laden song.
#8 Todd Snider, “Easy”
Imagine a nice love song from Todd Snider. Well, this is it, Folks. They do exist.
#9 The Notorious Cherry Bombs, “Making Memories of Us”
Keith Urban made this song famous, but Rodney Crowell wrote and sings the superior version, in my bold opinion. As apart of a pet project with Vince Gill, Rodney takes the lead with Vince providing gorgeous harmony support. Along with Crowell’s emotive rendering, this version has a nice, easy tasteful production.
#10 The Little Willies, “Tennessee Stud”
I can’t get enough of this song or this group. I’m glad it naturally came up on the shuffle, because I might have otherwise been tempted to rig it so it would anyway. The Little Willies are a group made up of people from New York City who have their own music careers separate from this group, but decided to come together to form this side band named after Willie Nelson. One of the members is well known, as she is Norah Jones. The entire project is unshakably fun with this song being my favorite. I typically don’t even like “Tennessee Stud”, but their arrangement and performance is ridiculously addictive, especially the guitar riff and Jones’ jaunty piano throughout the song.
As April is one of the odd months that has five Wednesdays, I thought I'd take a break from Country Quizzin' for this week and try out a new discussion-thing.
Given the current mainstream climate, it's been a while since I've felt able to heap unfettered praise on a piece of country music here, and that frankly bums me out a bit. So in the spirit of un-bumming, I'm going to share ten country songs from the 70's on that I find absolutely flawless – my “Perfect 10″ – and I invite you to do the same. It's a simple enough concept – you could just think of it as Recommend a Track times 10 plus a punny name.
Still, I suspect the outcome could be really interesting if everybody puts in the effort to pick ten songs that they consider the absolute cream of the crop. We're talking all-time best material here, whatever “all-time” happens to mean to you. You don't have to rank them, and they don't have to be your definitive top ten; I sure wouldn't be able to produce that list without a lot more thought. They just have to be up there – the kind of songs that you love fully and deeply, that still engage and surprise you after countless listens.
Most of the ten I've picked below are pretty well-known. Feel free to go as popular or as obscure as you like – great music is great music!
In chronological order:
Bobbie Gentry, “Ode to Billie Joe”
I've never heard anything else like this. Even if you ignore the compelling Southern Gothic mystery the song serves up in just over four minutes, there's so much magic in the writing itself. The intense attention to detail doesn't just paint a vivid picture; it serves an actual literary kind of purpose, illustrating the insensitivity of the narrator's family. I miss songs with subtexts.
Loretta Lynn, “Fist City”
“Fist City” is in the inner circle of big Loretta hits, but it usually has its spotlight stolen by more topically revolutionary numbers like “Don't Come Home A Drinkin'” or “The Pill.” But no longer! This saucy prelude to a catfight could be her most tightly-written anthem ever, with a killer hook and excellent one-liners all around. “The man I love, when he picks up trash, he puts it in a garbage can. And that's what you look like to me.” Damn!
John Denver, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”
Call it musical comfort food. Denver's stuff was never good for extremists: the hardcore folkies found it too simplistic and starry-eyed to be intellectually palatable, while the hardcore country fans found it too poppy to have any hillbilly integrity. If you ask me, those arguments were more about context than substance. This single seamlessly blends its folk, pop and country sensibilities, and Denver's soaring voice can sell this kind of romanticized lyric all day.
Jerry Jeff Walker, “Gettin' By”
Another helping of comfort food. This here's a take-it-easy anthem with a similar vibe to “Don't Worry, Be Happy,” but with less potential to annoy you.
Merle Haggard, “If We Make It Through December”
The kind of understated song that speaks for itself and doesn't try to sound more important than it really is, which is charming, since this song's sentiment is actually more significant than a lot of songs which employ a more dramatic approach. Haggard's writing here is also proof that specificity of storytelling often makes a song that much more relatable.
Alabama, “Dixieland Delight”
What can I say; I love the feel-good anthems. I have to admit that I mostly included this because I wanted to give the 80's at least one song and it was the first thing that came to mind, so it may be a tier lower than some of the others in terms of my love. But I don't think these guys get enough credit for the legitimately good country-rock stuff they did.
Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Why Walk When You Can Fly”
Easily the most obscure thing on this list, this gorgeous album opener
was released as a single and peaked at #45. I first heard this while driving to Kroger at night and just about pulled over so I could listen properly.
Dixie Chicks, “Long Time Gone”
If there is any justice whatsoever in the country music world, historians will remind the public hung up on “the incident” that the Chicks also produced some of the best singles of their time, especially with this Darrell Scott-penned beaut. What a masterwork.
Josh Turner, “Long Black Train”
I reached a point in life last year where my religious beliefs just seemed to fall out from underneath me, and I've been pretty much undecided on that front since. Incredibly, it's only made me appreciate Turner's spiritual beckon even more, which is a testament, I think, to how substantially it presents its point-of-view. And gosh, does it ever sound good. Josh oughta crack open that Hank Williams box set more often.
Nickel Creek, “This Side”
This was one of the key songs that hooked me for good into country music, so I had to include it. The writing is more abstract pop-rock than anything else, but the pulsating instrumentation is so sweet that you're a fool if you care one way or the other. Listen to this with a good pair of headphones and hear the world unfold.
Today’s Recommend a Track focuses on those songs that remind us to “Keep on the Sunny Side.”
As I wrote in my review of the new Rodney Atkins album, I’m an optimistic guy. So while I do love me some dark and depressing country music, the songs that best match my personal philosophy are those that look at the brighter side of life.
Some of my favorites:
The Carter Family, “Keep on the Sunny Side”
The Grandmama of them all. This was released during The Great Depression, y’all.
Shania Twain, “Up!”
Rodney Atkins sounds about as optimistic as Dwight Yoakam when compared to Shania Twain. This remains one of my favorite songs she’s ever released. Bonus points awarded to this clip because it not only features Alison Krauss & Union Station behind her, but Krauss and Twain discuss deodorant and shaving during the winter seasons.
Travis Tritt, “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive”
Darrell Scott penned this ode to taking joy in the little pleasures of life.
Those are three of my favorites. Share your favorites in the comments!