Category Archives: Starter Kits

Brooks & Dunn Starter Kit

Brooks & DunnWhen news broke of Brooks & Dunn’s impending breakup, we decided to move up our planned Starter Kit feature on this quintessential nineties act.

It’s hard to imagine a time when Brooks & Dunn winning an industry award was a breath of fresh air, but when they surfaced in 1991, they quickly ended the long reign of The Judds at the industry award shows.  Brooks & Dunn would then make The Judds dominance seem like child’s play. They’d go on to win 19 CMA awards, including 14 in the Vocal Duo category. This shattered the category dominance record held by The Statler Brothers, who won Vocal Group nine times.

They’ve been a core act at radio for eighteen years, and were the first duo or group in the history of country music to sell six million copies of a studio album, a feat they achieved with their debut album Brand New Man. Their cumulative sales are approaching 25 million.

Ten Essential Tracks:

“Brand New Man”
from the 1991 album Brand New Man

The sheer energy of their debut single made them an instant hit at radio. Truth is, this song could come out today and still sound fresh.

“Neon Moon”
from the 1991 album Brand New Man

Ronnie Dunn is one of the genre’s finest male vocalists, especially when he tears into a beer-sipping ballad.

“Boot Scootin’ Boogie”
from the 1991 album Brand New Man

They’d make many songs that honky-tonked more, but never one that did so in such an effortlessly charming way.

“She Used To Be Mine”
from the 1993 album Hard Workin’ Man

The title track of their second album earned them a Grammy, but the album’s real treasure was this killer ballad that showcased Dunn’s aching vocal.

“You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone”
from the 1994 album Waitin’ On Sundown

One of their best singles ever features Kix Brooks on lead, an unfortunate rarity among their radio hits.

“My Maria”
from the 1996 album Borderline

Leave it to Ronnie Dunn to make a seventies AM radio classic sound like little more than a demo for his definitive recording.

“How Long Gone”
from the 1998 album If You See Her

A simple, pleasing radio hit that’s heavy on hook and melody.

“The Long Goodbye”
from the 2001 album Steers & Stripes

A fully believable break-up song that’s all about drifting apart.

“Red Dirt Road”
from the 2003 album Red Dirt Road

A nostalgic trip down a very memorable lane.

“It’s Getting Better All the Time”
from the 2004 album The Greatest Hits Collection II

A “Backside of Thirty”-league portrait of a broken man.

Two Hidden Treasures:

“My Heart is Lost To You”
from the 2001 album Steers & Stripes

Despite riding a major comeback, this bilingual track got lost in the shuffle. It went top five but not recurrent, which is a shame, since it’s one of their most enchanting tracks.

“God Must Be Busy”
from the 2007 album Cowboy Town

“Believe” got all the love, but if you’re looking for a deeper exploration of faith and doubt, this is the way to go.


Filed under Back to the Nineties, Starter Kits

Lorrie Morgan Starter Kit

Lorrie MorganAmidst her generation of successful female country artists, Lorrie Morgan was the only one who was clearly from the tradition of heartbreak queen Tammy Wynette, with a healthy dose of Jeannie Seely in the mix.  With her contemporaries far more shaped by the work of Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, Morgan was instrumental in keeping the sound of female country from the sixties still relevant in the nineties.

While Morgan never earned the critical acclaim or industry accolades of peers like Patty Loveless and Pam Tillis, she was immensely popular with country fans, able to sell gold with albums that radio largely ignored. She was the first female country artist to have her first three studio albums go platinum, with three additional albums going gold and a hits collection selling double platinum.

Many of Morgan’s best recordings were never sent to radio, and those interested in discovering her in depth should seek out her finest studio albums, Greater Need and Show Me How.

But her singles were pretty good too, with these being the most essential.

Ten Essential Tracks:

“Dear Me”
from the 1989 album Leave the Light On

This song broke through just as news of the death of Keith Whitley, Morgan’s husband, became known. She was unfairly accused of capitalizing on his death with this release, as people both misinterpreted the song’s meaning and apparently ignored the fact that it had gone to radio weeks before his death.

“We Both Walk”
from the 1991 album Something in Red

One of her more cutting performances. She refuses to let her roving man come back home, because when he leaves, he walks away and she walks the floor.

“Something in Red”
from the 1991 album Something in Red

Her signature hit is the tale of a woman’s life through conversations while shopping for clothes. Amazingly poignant, especially given the conceit of the song.

“What Part of No”
from the 1992 album Watch Me

“Back off, buddy,” is the message of Morgan’s biggest chart hit, which topped the charts for three weeks.

“I Guess You Had to Be There”
from the 1992 album Watch Me

In my opinion, Morgan’s finest performance from her platinum years. When this was on the radio at the same time as Pam Tillis’ “Do You Know Where Your Man Is”, it was the next best thing to having Tammy Wynette back in heavy rotation.

“If You Came Back From Heaven”
from the 1994 album War Paint

Morgan finally addressed Whitley’s death in song with this self-penned ballad.

“I Didn’t Know My Own Strength”
from the 1995 album Greatest Hits

Her third and final #1 hit was an empowering anthem that topped the charts just as women were becoming the dominant commercial force in country music.

“I Just Might Be”
from the 1996 album Greater Need

This breezy single is cutting with its casual indifference.

“Good As I Was to You”
from the 1996 album Greater Need

The best of her power ballads finds her confronting her cheating husband as he dines with his mistress.

“Do You Still Want to Buy Me That Drink (Frank)”
from the 2004 album Show Me How

This single mom finally gets a night out, but before she moves forward with the man who is looking to hook up with her, she makes clear she’s part of a package deal.

Two Hidden Treasures:

“Greater Need”
from the 1996 album Greater Need

The title track of her finest RCA album is painfully vulnerable, as she realizes that she’s always the one with the greater need in her relationships.

“Don’t Worry Baby”
from the 1996 Beach Boys album Stars and Stripes Vol. 1

Morgan’s take on this Beach Boys classic completely changes the point of view of the song, giving it an added passion along with greater desperation.

Amazon Bonus Tracks:

Since the Amazon store doesn’t carry a handful of Morgan’s key hits, a few extra cuts are included to help round out the Starter Kit for those who don’t care for the iTunes store:

“Out of Your Shoes”
from the 1989 album Leave the Light On

A sad but sweet #2 hit which finds a woman looking on as he best friend goes home with the man that she wants for her own.

“Except For Monday”
from the 1991 album Something in Red

One of those catchy little numbers that can make any young kid a country fan in three minutes. Play Alan Jackson’s “Little Bitty” right after and they’ll be hooked for life.

“By My Side” (with Jon Randall)
from the 1996 album Greater Need

Her duet with then-husband was a top twenty hit. They sounded great together.

“I Can Count On You”
from the 2004 album Show Me How

The contrast between the pure tone of Pam’s voice makes Johnny’s spoken bridge sound all the more authoritative. It’s like a singing angel surrounding the voice of God.


Filed under Back to the Nineties, Starter Kits

Pam Tillis Starter Kit

Pam TillisThe first week of Back to the Nineties will wind down with women who have something in common. Each one is the daughter of a legendary country star that struggled to break through during the late seventies and most of the eighties, then became commercially successful throughout the nineties.

Today, our Starter Kit is for Pam Tillis. Now, those of you who are longtime readers of this site are already familiar with much of Pam’s work. Perhaps you’ve read my interview with her, or her 100 Greatest Women entry, or that edition of Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists.

But for those less familiar with her, Pam Tillis was one of the most surprising country stars during the boom years. After a pop album and several country singles with Warner Bros., she resurfaced as the flagship female artist for Arista Records. Between the time of her first single for the label going to radio in 1990 and the end of the decade, she’d amass thirteen top ten hits, three platinum albums, two gold albums, a Grammy, and two CMA Awards, including the 1994 trophy for Female Vocalist of the Year.

Ten Essential Tracks:

“Don’t Tell Me What To Do”
from the 1991 album Put Yourself in My Place

Her breakthrough hit was one of two tracks from her first country album to be nominated for CMA Single of the Year. It’s also one of many Tillis hits that helped bridge the generational gap between the self-pity queens of earlier decades and the rah-rah independent women of the post-Shania age.

“Maybe It Was Memphis”
from the 1991 album Put Yourself in My Place

Nominated for both a CMA and a Grammy, this torrid record was an instant classic. She’s never sounded this raw on another record, before or since.

“Shake the Sugar Tree”
from the 1992 album Homeward Looking Angel

There’s a double meaning to this title. Once you realize it, It changes the whole experience of listening to the song. Let me just say that this woman isn’t being playfully nagging. She’s being slyly seductive.

“Cleopatra, Queen of Denial”
from the 1992 album Homeward Looking Angel

The first step toward recovery is admitting you have a problem. The bitter edge to her vocal suggests that her days in denial are numbered, and she’s more frustrated with herself for allowing such mistreatment than she is with the man who’s been delivering it.

“Do You Know Where Your Man Is”
from the 1992 album Homeward Looking Angel

A modern and far less patronizing spin on Tammy Wynette’s “Woman to Woman.”

“Spilled Perfume”
from the 1994 album Sweetheart’s Dance

A woman consoles her friend for making a poor choice out of loneliness with a curious combination of “I’m here for you, but what on earth were you thinking?”

“When You Walk in the Room”
from the 1994 album Sweetheart’s Dance

It’s not pop-country. It’s country-pop. There’s a big difference.

“In Between Dances”
from the 1994 album Sweetheart’s Dance

A gorgeous waltz about those weary moments between having your heart broken and being ready to try love again.

“The River and the Highway”
from the 1995 album All of This Love

This is as close to pure poetry as country radio would ever get during the nineties.

“All the Good Ones are Gone”
from the 1997 album Greatest Hits

The track of choice for friends looking to depress their single friends on their birthday.

Two Hidden Treasures:

“Every Time”
from the 1998 album Every Time

One of those should’ve been hits. As Tillis sings of unrequited love, Eagle Timothy B. Schmit provides the harmony.

“Keep Your Eyes on Jesus” (featuring Johnny Cash)
from the 2001 album Livin’, Lovin’, Losin': The Songs of the Louvin Brothers

The contrast between the pure tone of Pam’s voice makes Johnny’s spoken bridge sound all the more authoritative. It’s like a singing angel surrounding the voice of God.


Filed under Back to the Nineties, Starter Kits

Travis Tritt Starter Kit

Travis TrittWhile Travis Tritt didn’t acquire quite as many number one hits as many of his fellow artists in the nineties, with only 3 to claim, he was still a solid hit maker and strong force throughout the decade. His soulful brand of “southern rockin’ country” is often what he associated himself with, as noted in “Put Some Drive in Your Country”, but he was just as vocally connected to ballads and other more standard country fare.

Even as an artist of the nineties who was not honored as much by the industry as some of his peers, likely as a result of his outlaw image, his album sales still managed to be impressive. They included albums that went gold (1), platinum (3), double platinum (3) and triple platinum (1).

As one of my favorite artists of the nineties and in general, it was difficult to point to only ten essential tracks of Travis Tritt’s to spotlight, especially since the majority of my favorite songs of his were either not hit songs or even released at all.

Ten Essential Tracks:

“Here’s A Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)”
From the 1991 album It’s All About to Change

In the nineties, Tritt was credited as having a strong personality, though people close to him, including various opening acts, have reported that he was always surprisingly friendly and accommodating. This satisfyingly and refreshingly retaliatory song, however, helped to perpetuate the feeling that Tritt is not someone to be crossed. It is a glimpse of how it would feel to actually respond with one of those quippy comebacks that we only dream of lobbing, after the fact, of course.

“The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’” (with Marty Stuart)
From the 1991 album It’s All About to Change

The second of several collaborations with his critically acclaimed buddy, Marty Stuart. While the whiskey may have worked for a time, they realize that a good woman is what they really need.

“Lord Have Mercy on the Working Man”
From the 1992 album T-R-O-U-B-L-E

A timely and timeless theme done perfectly. Tritt does an excellent job of conveying both practical resignation and natural frustration to which the average person can easily relate.

“Looking Out for Number One”
From the 1992 album T-R-O-U-B-L-E

He’s tired of trying to please everyone else at the expense of his own happiness, so starting now, he’s “looking out for number one.” Sounds selfish, but don’t we all feel that way at times?

“Worth Every Mile”
From the 1992 album T-R-O-U-B-L-E

For as many Tritt songs that had attitude, he had at least as many ballads. I’m not particularly fond of a lot of them anymore, but “Worth Every Mile” is one that still works for me. It’s a realistic celebration of a long lasting relationship that is a worthy candidate for an anniversary song.

“Take It Easy”
From the 1994 album Common Thread: Songs of the Eagles

It’s dangerous to say it, but this song, recorded for country music’s tribute to the Eagles, has always sounded stronger than the original version to me. The fact that it helped to get the Eagles back together “after hell {apparently} froze over” is just an added bonus for loyal Eagles fans out there.

“Foolish Pride”
From the 1994 album Ten Feet Tall And Bulletproof

This is a thoughtful case study of a couple who is too prideful to overcome their anger toward each other. “Ain’t it sad to see a good love fall to pieces?” asks Tritt. “Chalk another heartbreak up to foolish pride.”

“It’s A Great Day to Be Alive”
From the 2000 album Down the Road I Go

It’s nearly impossible not to feel positive after hearing this catchy and quirky Darrell Scott penned song.

“Modern Day Bonnie And Clyde”
From the 2000 album Down the Road I Go

Tritt enjoyed renewed success at the turn of the century with this Dobro laden thriller of a song, which actually tells an engaging story. Imagine that.

“I See Me”
From the 2004 album My Honky Tonk History

As a rabble rouser turned sentimental dad, Tritt sings this song with palpable sensitivity and sincerity. It wasn’t a hit, but it should have been.

Two Hidden Treasures:

“Start the Car”
From the 1998 album No More Looking Over My Shoulder

I’m a sucker for jaunty horns and this upbeat, bluesy song, delightfully, features them.

“What If Love Hangs On”
From the 2007 album The Storm

One of only a couple great tracks on an otherwise disappointing effort from Tritt. On this hopeful, but melancholy tinged love ballad of sorts, Tritt’s voice displays a hint of vulnerability and is uncharacteristically restrained, which is only positively accentuated by an equally restrained, but tasteful, production.


Filed under Back to the Nineties, Starter Kits

Mark Chesnutt Starter Kit

mark-chesnuttBack to the Nineties continues with a look at Mark Chesnutt, one of the strongest traditionalists to break through in 1990. He won the Horizon Award in 1993 while he was riding a streak of three consecutive #1 singles.

Chesnutt’s greatest commercial and radio successes came early on. His first three studio albums went platinum and his fourth went gold. He’d earn an additional platinum record with a hits collection assembled from those sets.

While he remained a consistent presence on radio for the entire decade, his sales tapered off. His last big hit was his 1999 cover of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” which went to #1. In more recent years, he’s limited his covers to The Marshall Tucker Band and Charlie Rich.

Ten Essential Tracks:

“Too Cold at Home”
from the 1990 album Too Cold at Home

Chesnutt’s first twelve singles reached the top ten, starting with this pure country hit that finds him hiding out in a bar on a sweltering summer day. “It’s too hot to fish, too hot for golf, and too cold at home.”

“Brother Jukebox”
from the 1990 album Too Cold at Home

He’s still at the bar for this hit, his first to top the charts. This time, the woman has left him, and his only family left are the jukebox, wine, freedom, and time.

“I’ll Think of Something”
from the 1992 album Longnecks & Short Stories

A bone-chilling cover of a very old Hank Williams Jr. single. His nuanced vocal digs deeper than Williams did on the 1974 original.

“Bubba Shot the Jukebox”
from the 1992 album Longnecks & Short Stories

This was one of the first singles forced by radio, as unsolicited airplay pushed it on to the charts while MCA was still working “I’ll Think of Something.” Songwriter Dennis Linde also penned Chesnutt’s #1 hit “It Sure is Monday.”

“Almost Goodbye”
from the 1993 album Almost Goodbye

It begins like a domestic epic worthy of George Jones, complete with the swelling of the strings for heightened emotional effect. But cooler heads prevail as they realize how much they’d have to lose if they said the word goodbye. After all, “Sometimes the most important words are the ones that you leave unspoken.”

“I Just Wanted You to Know”
from the 1993 album Almost Goodbye

One side of what must be an incredibly awkward telephone conversation, with the woman’s implied silence at the other end of the line making things just a little more uncomfortable.

“Goin’ Through the Big D”
from the 1994 album What a Way to Live

The nineties equivalent of “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft.)”

from the 1995 album Wings

Covering Todd Snider. The coolest thing that Mark Chesnutt has ever done. “A woman like you walks in a place like this and you can almost hear the promises break.”

“It Wouldn’t Hurt to Have Wings”
from the 1995 album Wings

Essentially the title track to Chesnutt’s finest major label album, it was also the set’s only big hit.

“Thank God For Believers”
from the 1997 album Thank God For Believers

In a decade that brought several powerful new perspectives on alcoholism, this was one of the best, as the man who struggles with his addiction can’t believe the strength and the faith of the woman who stays beside him.

Two Hidden Treasures:

from the 1995 album Wings

Take your pick from this album – perhaps you’d prefer “As the Honky Tonk Turns” or “King of Broken Hearts” – but my favorite is the closing track, where strangers that meet in the evening will be strangers again the next morning.

“A Hard Secret to Keep”
from the 2004 album Savin’ the Honky Tonk

This is the best moment of Chesnutt’s strongest album, the independent release Savin’ the Honky Tonk. It’s an album that more than lives up to its title, especially on this tale of cheater’s paranoia.


Filed under Back to the Nineties, Starter Kits

Joe Diffie Starter Kit

Joe DiffieToday, the Starter Kit returns to Country Universe, and it brings a new theme with it: Back to the Nineties.
Beginning this month, we’ll be putting a special focus on the artists most closely associated with the nineties boom, which remains the most commercially successful era in the history of country music.

The first artist to be featured is Joe Diffie, a wonderful balladeer who had his greatest success with novelty material. At one point, he was known in Nashville as Joe Ditty, a moniker that masked the fact that he continued to record heartbreaking ballads but had trouble getting them on the radio.

With that in mind, Diffie’s Starter Kit is also the first to introduce a slight tweak to the format. This and future Starter Kits will include Ten Essential Tracks and Two Hidden Treasures, allowing for should’ve been hits to be acknowledged along with the signature songs.

Ten Essential Tracks

from the 1990 album A Thousand Winding Roads

Today, it might be quickly dismissed as the latest nostalgic “list song”, and perhaps this would be little more than that in lesser hands. But Diffie’s wistful pining for home is a lot closer in spirit to Porter Wagoner’s “Green, Green Grass of Home” than it is to anything contemporary. As Diffie’s first single, it’s interesting to hear him still finding himself as a singer, with quite a bit of his phrasing borrowed from Merle Haggard.

“Is it Cold in Here”
from the 1992 album Regular Joe

Diffie led off his second album with this single that posed the following question to his wife: “Is it cold in here, or is it just you?”  It’s anything but bitter, as he mournfully searches for what he’s done wrong that’s led to the sudden chill.

“Ships That Don’t Come In”
from the 1992 album Regular Joe

Two strangers that are down on their luck compare battle scars at a local bar. Before fully giving in to their self-pity, they realize that even though they’ve tried and failed, there are those who’ve never been given the chance to even try.

“Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die)”
from the 1993 album Honky Tonk Attitude

A country comedy star is born.

“John Deere Green”
from the 1993 album Honky Tonk Attitude

A delightfully corny tale of a smitten young man who is ready to let the world know he loves Charlene in a quite unconventional way.

“In My Own Backyard”
from the 1993 album Honky Tonk Attitude

In what would become a growing trend, radio didn’t embrace the classic country hurt of a Diffie ballad. Despite his previous three uptempo songs going top five, this killer track barely grazed the top twenty.

“Third Rock From the Sun”
from the 1994 album Third Rock From the Sun

Diffie reached his commercial peak with the album that shared a title with this mind-bending single, a cleverly written saga of cause-and-effect in a small town that’s anything but boring.

“Texas Size Heartache”
from the 1998 album Greatest Hits

After going to the well too many times in the mid-nineties, radio grew tired of Diffie’s ditties, but they hadn’t rediscovered his ballads either. He got back on track with this pleasing mid-tempo that split the difference between the two, earning his first real hit in three years.

“A Night to Remember”
from the 1999 album A Night to Remember

Quite possibly Diffie’s finest moment, a powerful song about a man who surrenders to memories of his long lost love at the end of a long week of pretending to be doing fine without her.

“It’s Always Somethin'”
from the 1999 album A Night to Remember

I suspect that Dierks Bentley keeps this one on his favorite songs playlists. Every mile’s a memory here, with everything that Diffie sees and does reminding him of the woman he still loves.

Two Hidden Treasures:

“Good Brown Gravy”
from the 1994 album Third Rock From the Sun

Diffie’s dittying reaches its dizzying peak, with this uproarious salute to the amorous power of biscuit lotion.

“That Road Not Taken”
from the 1994 album Third Rock From the Sun

This shockingly stopped at #40, despite Diffie’s three previous singles reaching the top two. It flew way over the head of country radio, but it remains a heart-stopping ballad, possibly the finest showcase there is of Diffie’s raw vocal talent.


Filed under Back to the Nineties, Starter Kits

Kevin Coyne Starter Kit

Birthday CakeThis is an exciting day for Country Universe. Our favorite blogger and Country Universe founder, Kevin Coyne, turns thirty today! We are thrilled to join Kevin’s best friend, Charlie Geier from The Widening Geier, in wishing Kevin a heartfelt happy birthday!

In celebration of Kevin’s big day, we have compiled a Starter Kit of some of our favorite articles that Kevin has written throughout the life of Country Universe, which is quickly approaching five years, by the way. Some of our readers may recall these posts and others will be reading them for the first time. This Starter Kit will not only give Kevin an opportunity to look back on his own writing, but allow the rest of us to either reminisce or explore some excellent work as well. And as is the ultimate purpose of Starter Kits, it’s a starting place to encourage people to discover more of the subject’s body of work, who happens to be Kevin Coyne in this instance. By doing this, we hope to pay tribute to our friend by spotlighting his insightful writing. First and foremost, you will see Kevin’s easy and obvious writing prowess. Moreover, you will surely note his passion for country music and, most importantly, his sincere and deep compassion for people in general, not to mention his sense of humor and philosophical outlook.

All of the writers for Country Universe have joined the staff due to our admiration for Kevin and his thoughtful blog that existed long before any of us began adding our voices to the mix. So, we are honored to have the opportunity to have this platform to wish him a very happy birthday today. And we invite you, our readers, to pleas join us in extending warm wishes to Kevin and note your favorite Kevin Coyne posts in the comments.

#10 Single Review: Toby Keith, “Stays in Mexico”

Charlie Geier: The above does not necessarily represent the best writing/blogging Kevin has ever done. It is a simple review, with hints of the writing style which would develop over the next several years. I chose this as part of the Starter Kit because it is the first post that I can remember Kevin ever posting. I was his roommate at the time, and it was his site which inspired me to begin on my own blogging journey.

This post serves as evidence of how something like Country Universe can emerge from the most humble beginnings. I know Kevin has inspired a lot of people to begin their own writing careers, and I am proud to have been one of them. I am also proud to hold the distinction of being one of the, if not the, first CU reader.

Happy Birthday buddy!

#9 Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Emmylou Harris

This is Kevin’s first Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists article. He admits that Emmylou Harris is an acquired taste, but one that he acquired in a big way once he did. By sharing his connections to the songs, he honestly shares parts of himself with his readers in the process.

#8 400 Best Contemporary Country Singles: #25-#1

This won’t be quick reading. Kevin took on the gigantic task of compiling 400 of the best contemporary country singles. He admits that they are ranked, in part, according to his personal barometer, but it’s as an objective of a list such as this can be. Be sure to check out the prior fifteen sections to this post as well.

#7 Concert Review, Dixie Chicks, Madison Square Garden, 8/1/06

It’s no secret that the Dixie Chicks are Kevin’s favorite band. He has gone to bat for them even though it hasn’t been particularly popular or emotionally safe to do so within the world of country music in the last several years. He had an opportunity to see them in concert, which inspired this review that includes open commentary on the fall out from the tempestuous events of “the incident.”

#6 The Fifty Best Debut Singles of All-Time: Part 5

This is another one of Kevin’s impressive countdowns. It was so impressive, in fact, that Country Weekly even featured it in their popular magazine. Be sure to check out the previous four sections of the countdown, too, which display a great deal of historical insight.

#5 Mary Chapin Carpenter, Stones in the Road

This revealing album review details many of Kevin’s life philosophies that certainly contribute to his outlook today. He acknowledges that it speaks to him on a personal level like no other album has done. It is also a part of the Top 100 Greatest Contemporary Country Albums countdown, which was yet another staggering undertaking of Kevin’s.

#4 A Conversation with Pam Tillis

This is a milestone for Country Universe, because it was the first interview ever conducted for the site. Happily, the interviewee just so happened to be the interviewer’s favorite artist, which is clearly evident throughout the “conversation.” Without needlessly gushing, Kevin is able to highlight Pam Tillis’ music from the perspective of a person who knows her music it inside out. It’s not just an interview, but a labor of love.

#3 Discussion: Carrie Underwood, Shania Twain and Gender in Country Music

This is one of Country Universe’s most memorable posts. As the title suggests, Kevin boldly explores the complications of gender, particularly the marginalization of women, in country music. With over 100 comments, many of them very passionate, it definitely struck a sensitive but important chord with readers.

#2 The Coping Power of Music

This post is heartbreakingly honest and poignant. It demonstrates Kevin’s willingness to let his guard down and share his heart with Country Universe readers in a very intimate way.

#1 100 Greatest Women

The number one spot for this Starter Kit was inevitable. Anyone who has followed Kevin’s writing at Country Universe for any measurable period of time is more than likely aware that he holds a special place in his heart for the women of country music. It’s their music and heart that most deeply speaks to him and it’s their profound music and stories that he devoted months promoting in the form of extensive essays that detailed their individual journeys.

Our readers may not have always agreed on the specific placements of these women within the countdown, but our blog statistics, frankly, told us that they appreciated the focus that was dedicated to paying tribute to a group of people who often have to struggle to be noticed in a male dominated industry. Not only did our regular readers enjoy the countdown that spanned four months, but Country Universe gained new readers as a result of Kevin’s tireless labor of love. To this very day, we enjoy devout readership of people who initially happened upon this blog because of this seminal 100 Greatest Women Countdown.

As much as we are proud of our contributions to this blog, we are all quick to acknowledge that Kevin single handedly built Country Universe, one of the first country music blogs to ever exist, from the ground up. Along with dedicated readers, it is his vision and unmatched dedication that has made Country Universe the successful blog that it is today. And we are extremely honored that he has so graciously invited each of us to be a part of it.

As Charlie touched upon above, Kevin’s gentle and supportive leadership has been a great source of encouragement to us all, as writers and human beings. He may be a great blogger, but he is an even better person, which we suspect is actually most important to him.

Happy birthday, Friend!


Filed under Starter Kits

Willie Nelson Starter Kit

willie-nelsonSince he's one of the few country legends who is best defined by his albums rather than his individual tracks, creating a Starter Kit for Willie Nelson is a tough row to hoe.

What follows is the cream of the crop from Willie Nelson's peak years, minus the collaborations with other artists. His pairings with other great acts would be another Starter Kit unto itself.

When you're ready to dig deeper, check out his studio albums in their entirety, starting with Phases and Stages and Shotgun Willie, moving on to Red Headed Stranger and Stardust, and picking up lesser-known classics from the later years, like Spirit, Teatro, and You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker.

“Yesterday's Wine” from the 1971 album Yesterday's Wine

Nelson encounters an old friend at a local drinking establishment and they share a round of drinks as they reflect on how they're “aging with time, like yesterday's wine.”

“Whiskey River” from the 1973 album Shotgun Willie

It's since become a live favorite of Nelson's fans at a speedier tempo, but there's a a beautiful melancholy to the studio version found on this album.

“Bloody Mary Morning” from the 1974 album Phases and Stages

A centerpiece of what is arguably Nelson's finest concept album, it's since become something of a standard. Also of note from this set is “It's Not Supposed to Be That Way.”

“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” from the 1975 album Red Headed Stranger

A most unexpected breakthrough hit came in the form of an old country classic delivered with sparse accompaniment.

“The Troublemaker” from the 1976 album The Troublemaker

It just might be the best country song ever written about Jesus. It's certainly more grounded in the Gospel than anything I've heard in mainstream country music.

“Georgia on My Mind”

>from the 1978 album Stardust

Trying to pick the best cover from this collection of pop standards is difficult, but this is probably his best vocal performance on the collection.

“My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” from the 1980 album The Electric Horseman

A flawless deconstruction of the American cowboy archetype.

“On the Road Again” from the 1980 album Honeysuckle Rose

Nelson's ode to the road has livened up countless road trips over the past three decades, making the miles fly by for two minutes and change.

“Always on My Mind” from the 1982 album Always on My Mind

Nelson's stroke of genius was delivering this oft-recorded song as an anniversary pledge to be a better husband rather than as the postmortem of a failed relationship.

“City of New Orleans” from the 1984 album City of New Orleans

Who better to sing Steve Goodman's celebration of southern America as seen from a boxcar?



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Dwight Yoakam Starter Kit

dwight-yoakamFew artists command as much critical acclaim as Dwight Yoakam, yet he was also a stunningly successful commercial act from the start. Nine of his releases have been certified gold or better, and his biggest set to date – This Time – has sold more than three million copies.

His catalog is deep with classic cuts. Here are ten of the best, a solid introduction to one of the genre's greatest talents.

And while it's not represented on the list, I highly recommend his stellar Under the Covers, an excellent covers album that is best heard in its entirety.

“Guitars, Cadillacs” from the 1986 album Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.

It's tempting to kick off with “Honky Tonk Man”, Yoakam's effective cover of Johnny Horton's classic that was also his breakthrough hit. But what's missing from that track is Yoakam's signature heartache and pain. In Yoakam's best songs, he's not seeking out the night life because he enjoys it. It's to distract him from the loneliness and rejection that his lover has inflicted upon him.

“Streets of Bakersfield” (featuring Buck Owens) from the 1988 album Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room

Yoakam was instrumental in making the younger generations aware of the importance of Buck Owens, clearly Yoakam's strongest country influence. When he chose to revive an old Owens tune, he invited the man himself to help him out. The end result was a #1 hit that was a comeback for Owens and a signature smash for both of them.

“It Only Hurts When I Cry” from the 1990 album If There Was a Way

Yoakam's albums got considerably more ambitious in the nineties, but it's the beautiful simplicity of this hit, co-penned by Roger Miller, that's made it so timeless.

“Suspicious Minds” from the 1992 album Honeymoon in Vegas

He'd already had a hit with Elvis Presley's “Little Sister”, which he covered faithfully on his second album, Hillbilly Deluxe. But it was his rocking cover of “Suspicious Minds” that, in my mind, well surpassed Presley's original version.

“Ain't That Lonely Yet” from the 1993 album This Time

Co-writer James House had planned on keeping this one for himself, but when Yoakam heard it, he insisted that he get the chance to release it. It was a good move for both men, as the song became a radio smash and the performance earned Yoakam a Grammy.

“A Thousand Miles From Nowhere” from the 1993 album This Time

There's something hypnotic about this particular hit, which was immortalized with a split-screen video that has since become a classic.

“Nothing” from the 1995 album Gone

Gone is Yoakam's most fascinating album of self-penned material, with creative percussion arrangements and unexpected horn sections popping up here and there. There was never anything on country radio quite like it, nor has there been anything since.

“Things Change” from the 1998 album A Long Way Home

One of Yoakam's catchiest hits is also one of his most venomous, as he rejects the lover that has come crawling back to him after sending him packing earlier in the song.

“Thinking About Leaving” from the 1999 album Last Chance For a Thousand Years

Yoakam added new lyrics and changed the arrangement of this Rodney Crowell song, which had originally appeared on Crowell's Jewel of the South. He turned it into the confessional of  a man torn between a life on the road and making a home with the woman who finally has him wanting to settle down.

“The Back of Your Hand” from the 2003 album Population: Me

Yoakam knew he had to cut this song when he heard the line, “There's some things that I just know, like you take two sugars with a splash of cream.” I've always been most fond of the way he frames the choice facing the woman who wants to leave: “Pick a number from one to two.”



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Reba McEntire Starter Kit

Reba McEntire already has 56 top ten hits to her credit, and her new single, “Strange”, just entered the chart at #39, a career-high entry for the legendary singer. She's been a presence on the country charts for 23 years, has more gold and platinum albums than any female country artist, and she's a multimedia star, finding great success on Broadway and in television and film.

But for those who know her best as a sitcom star or Kelly Clarkson's and Kenny Chesney's duet partner, trying to tackle her catalog is a daunting task. This Starter Kit will get you going, as it includes ten of her most essential tracks. Those of you looking to learn more about McEntire are highly recommended to check out the excellent My Kind of Country blog, which gives frequent and always high-quality coverage of McEntire's music, past and present.

“Somebody Should Leave” from the 1984 album My Kind of Country

Even though she was won her first CMA award for Female Vocalist before this album was released, My Kind of Country is widely credited as being the first truly great Reba McEntire album. She exerted creative control for the first time, and instantly became one of the genre's most significant new traditionalists.

This Harlan Howard classic is achingly, heartbreakingly beautiful, a description that fits most of McEntire's best work. Here, a couple is aware that it's time to part ways, but aren't sure how to go about it, so worried are they for their children: “If it was only you and me, goodbye might come more easily. But what about those babies down the hall?”

“Whoever's in New England” from the 1986 album Whoever's in New England

A country ballad on the surface, a power pop ballad below the surface. This epic of suspected cheating turned her into a record seller, and earned her the CMA award for Entertainer of the Year.

“One Promise Too Late” from the 1986 album What Am I Gonna Do About You

McEntire's recorded quite a bit of traditional country, but rarely as pure as this track, where the musical hook is provided by twin fiddles and her voice is even twangier than usual.

“You Lie” from the 1990 album Rumor Has It

There were quite a few solid singles off Reba's lesser-known but still platinum-selling albums from the late eighties. But when she teamed with Tony Brown for Rumor Has It, the lead single “You Lie” blew them out of the water. The full range of her voice was on display for the first time, and it was a force to be reckoned with.

“Fancy” from the 1990 album Rumor Has It

Bobbie Gentry's original was tinged with sadness and regret, but McEntire turned it into an empowerment anthem, a full force assualt on the “self-righteous hypocrites that call me bad.” She did what she had to do, and she stayed true to her mother and herself. She could care less what anyone else thinks about it.

“For My Broken Heart” fro

m the 1991 album For My Broken Heart

Paul W. Dennis of The 9513 said that his Randy Travis Starter Kit could begin and end with the entirety of Storms of Life. I could say the same about McEntire and her masterpiece For My Broken Heart.

Recorded in the wake of the plane crash that killed her road manager and several members of her band, the album is somber without ever becoming too morose. The title track was originally planned as a duet with Clint Black, but McEntire did it alone in the end. Her performance on the CMA Awards was one of her finest moments, even as her voice visibly cracked with emotion at the end.

“The Greatest Man I Never Knew” from the 1991 album For My Broken Heart

A daughter looks back on the man who sacrificed everything he had to make a better life for his family, but in so doing, never got to know his daughter. “I never really knew him,” she laments, “and now it seems so sad. Everything he gave to us took all he had.”

“If I Had Only Known” from the 1991 album For My Broken Heart

Her finest moment on record, as she looks back with sad regret on the things that she never said to a loved one who has died. “If I had only known it was my last night by your side, I'd pray a miracle stop the dawn. And when you smiled at me, I would look into your eyes and make sure you know my love for you goes on and on.”

“The Fear of Being Alone” from the 1996 album What If It's You

This strikingly intelligent hit finds McEntire warning her new beau not to rush into saying “I love you.”  She warns him that “you may think you do, but you don't. It's just the fear of being alone.”

“Moving Oleta” from the 2003 album Room to Breathe

This one's so painfully sad that it could've been on For My Broken Heart. A man moves his wife into a nursing home because he can no longer care for her, so advanced is her Alzheimer's.



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