It’s been 10 years this month since Carrie Underwood released “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” a song that would define her early on as a wholesome, powerhouse vocalist with mass appeal. It was a fitting label at the time, but it fell short of what I knew her to be: a deeply emotive artist who understood humanity.
She was one of those artists that my parents listened to in the car. The CD was always Hits: 1979-1989. My dad loved “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train” and my mom, “Tennessee Flat-Top Box.” They both loved “Seven Year Ache.”
But by the time I was listening to country music independently, with CMT as my primary conduit for new music, Cash had already left country music behind. Given that she was never big on making music videos in the first place, I saw the clip for “The Wheel” a few times, and that was it.
Since making her debut with 1997’s Alabama Song, Allison Moorer has been one of country music’s most consistent albums artists. The singer-songwriter has three unqualified masterpieces to her credit— the flawless stone-country heartbreak cycle of The Hardest Part, the politically charged The Duel, and the somber, heady Southern Gothic of Crows. Despite having those triumphs— and other excellent albums like Alabama Song and Good Fortune— to her credit, Moorer’s latest effort, Down to Believing, is perhaps the finest album of her career because it finds Moorer challenging both her singing and her songwriting voices to plumb truly difficult emotional depths.
The pop music world is still buzzing over last week’s release of 1989: Not Taylor Swift’s pop-cultural juggernaut, but alt-country singer-songwriter Ryan Adams’ cover album of 1989 “in the style of The Smiths.” A quick review of the iTunes comments on Adams’ version of 1989 reveals that a not insubstantial portion of Swift’s fanbase hasn’t gotten a handle on his angle or his appeal, while the mainstream music press is agog over Adams’ guile and audacity.
It isn’t easy to follow up a universally praised debut album, especially when you don’t have the novelty of the new in your corner. Sometimes what sounds so fresh is just by the virtue of being the first time your voice has been heard. The second time around, you can only rely on the strength of your material. Being different is no longer enough.