As we did last year, it’s time to share our preferences for this year’s CMA Awards. Last year, Taylor Swift was the belle of the ball, winning four awards. Some long winning streaks came to an end, as Swift replaced both Kenny Chesney as Entertainer of the Year and Carrie Underwood as Female Vocalist of the Year. Lady Antebellum ended Rascal Flatts’ long run as top Vocal Group, and were the surprise winners of Single of the Year as well.
Once again. I’ve selected the five artists that I believe are most deserving of an Entertainer of the Year nomination. But first, let’s take a look at last year’s race:
Entertainer of the Year (2009)
Swift was victorious in her first nomination in this category. She competed against three previous winners: Kenny Chesney, who has gone 4 for 8 in this category; Keith Urban, who is 1 for 5; and the incomparable George Strait, who is 2 for 17. Brad Paisley lost for the fifth year, tying Kenny Rogers for the most nominations without a win.
As the numbers above show, this has been a largely static category for the past ten years. Only thirteen artists earned nominations from 2000-2009. The CMA noms can be very predictable.
But looking at radio and retail these days, there’s been a big changing of the guard. I think that this category more than any other should reflect that. I’m putting my personal tastes aside here, as there are only two artists I list that I actually listen to regularly.
Entertainer of the Year (2010)
The nominees should be:
Their second album has already spent 25 weeks at #1, and “Need You Now” was such a big hit that it’s led to pop airplay for “I Run to You”, the award-winning hit from their debut album. It would be an early nomination in terms of their career, but Alabama and Dixie Chicks were elevated to this category even faster, so there’s precedent for vocal groups.
She’s always had the critical success, and she’s always sold records. But she’s selling them a heck of a lot faster these days and radio is suddenly, shockingly, spectacularly on board. It’s time for the CMA to catch up with the ACM, who have been away ahead in acknowledging this artist.
Being nominated the year after winning is not a given, but it’s the norm. While it was common in the seventies, it’s been very rare in recent years. Shania Twain (1999) was the last winner to not receive another nomination the following year, with the others being: Dolly Parton (1978), Mel Tillis (1976), John Denver (1975), and Charlie Rich (1974).
So she’s probably a lock for a nomination, and she deserves one. Though things have been quiet on the Swift front for the past couple of months, she had a massive tour and sold a ton of records during the eligibility period.
She really should be enjoying her third nomination this year, but a (flimsy) case could be made for her not making the ballot in 2008 and 2009. But no nomination this year would be inexcusable. She had a very successful tour, continued to dominate radio, and her third album is quickly approaching double platinum. At this point, she shouldn’t just get a nomination. She should win.
Zac Brown Band
Their live performances are well-regarded, radio is fully on board, and their first major label album is double platinum. A case could be made for Brad Paisley getting this spot, but sales of his new album have fallen quite a bit short of previous efforts. The same goes for other perennial nominees Keith Urban, George Strait, and Kenny Chesney.
It’s hard to believe that twenty years have passed since the nineties first began. Perhaps that’s because so many of the artists who broke through during that decade remain relevant on the music scene today, whether they’re still getting major spins at radio or not.
For many of us, it was the nineties when we discovered and fell in love with country music, and it’s the music and artists from that decade that represent the pinnacle of the genre. It may be debatable whether the nineties were the most artistically significant decade in the history of country music, but there’s no debating that country music never had more commercial success or cultural impact than it did in that decade.
It was a time that when the C-list artists could sell gold or platinum on the strength of one or two hits, and that 24-hour video outlets could give wide exposure to songs and artists that radio playlists could not. When the four writers of this feature got together and combined our favorite singles from the decade, it was clear that this retrospective had to run far deeper than the one we recently completed for the first decade of the 21st century. There were simply far more good singles to choose from.
That being said, this list is a reflection of our personal tastes. While they often overlapped with what was commercially popular, with nineteen top ten hits and eleven #1 hits among the first 25 entries alone, we didn’t consider radio or retail success in our picks. So while you’ll see all of the big nineties stars represented on this list, it won’t always be with their biggest hits. There’s more than a few stars that never quite came to be as well, saved from the dustbins of history and easier to find now than they were back then, thanks to the twin marvels of YouTube and Amazon.
As always, share your thoughts in the comments!
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #400-#376
#400 Little Good-Byes SHeDaisy
1999 | Peak: #3
Passive aggression finally got its due representation in modern country with SHeDAISY’s debut single, in which a mistreated protagonist exacts revenge on her ex by ever-so-slightly screwing up his house. Sort of like “Before He Cheats” for sane women. On the other hand – taking all the Beatles records and leaving only Billy Joel? Pretty cold, Osborn sisters. – Dan Milliken
It Wouldn’t Hurt to Have Wings Mark Chesnutt
1995 | Peak: #7
Chesnutt is getting over you – promise – but he sure wouldn’t mind being lifted above the memories of your “mind-wrecking” love in this delightfully charming sing-along. – Tara Seetharam
Fool, I’m a Woman Sara Evans
1999 | Peak: #32
The age-old stereotype that women can’t make up their minds is cleverly subverted into a threat toward an unkind man. A good combo of Loretta Lynn sass and Diana Ross sha-la-las. – DM
One More Last Chance Vince Gill
1993 | Peak: #1
“One More Last Chance” may seem like a song about a man who is begging for just one more last chance to get things right. But under the surface, it’s about a man who is hopelessly addicted to alcohol and partying. Even when his wife takes away his obvious means of transportation by hiding the keys to the car, he resorts to riding his John Deere tractor to the bar instead. It’s a fun song, but one that is inspired by an incident associated with George Jones, who, incidentally, is infamous for his destructive alcohol addiction. – Leeann Ward
The Cheap Seats Alabama
1994 | Peak: #13
“The Cheap Seats” aptly captures the spirit of America’s favorite pastime. – LW
Lonely Too Long Patty Loveless
1996 | Peak: #1
A tender plea for the morning after to be the beginning of something more, with Loveless delivering both angst and cautious optimism through her vocal. – Kevin Coyne
(If You’re Not in it For Love) I’m Outta Here! Shania Twain
1995 | Peak: #1
Look, guys, some of you are so transparent, it’s laughable. And to you I offer Twain’s deliciously audacious, merciless warning: if you’re not in it for love, we’re outta here. – TS
Jenny Come Back Helen Darling
1995 | Peak: #69
Darling recalls watching a high school friend sacrifice her intelligence and ambition to please the boy she loves, who outgrows her in the end because she has nothing of her own to offer him. She ends up a high school dropout working at a movie theater. In short, how those fantasy Taylor Swift videos would end in the real world. – KC
Dreaming With My Eyes Open Clay Walker
1994 | Peak: #1
Walker puts a clever twist on a fact of life that’s all too hard to grasp – the only thing we can control is the present. His infectious pledge to live in the moment is as effective as country’s finest inspirational ballads because it’s firmly grounded in reality: “I learned that one step forward will take you further on than a thousand back or a million that ain’t your own.” – TS
There Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong With the Radio Aaron Tippin
1992 | Peak: #1
With an addicting guitar riff, Tippin celebrates the radio. It doesn’t matter that the car is falling apart, but at least there’s nothing wrong with the most important part of the vehicle, the souped up radio. – LW
Write This Down George Strait
1999 | Peak: #1
One of the dittiest of all George Strait ditties? Sure. But there’s a subtle, maybe accidental wisdom to it, too. So much art is created in moments of unusual passion, when sensations like pain or love feel intense and everlasting. But most life isn’t lived in such moments, and any feeling is subject to fade away without some regular renewal. “Tell yourself ‘I love you and I don’t want you to go’” sounds light and cutesy on the surface, but it’s those little notes – and not grandiose gestures of unusual passion – that keep a relationship chugging along for the long haul. – DM
Still in Love With You Travis Tritt
1997 | Peak: #23
With conspicuous steel guitar work, this minor hit for Tritt is a straight up country romper by today’s standards. – LW
Walking Shoes Tanya Tucker
1990 | Peak: #3
She seems a little sad about it, but she’s had enough of being taken for granted and is gearing up to walk right on out of her underappreciating lover’s life. – LW
Big Deal LeAnn Rimes
1999 | Peak: #6
A sassy little number that finds a regretful Rimes lashing out at the girl who nabbed her old boyfriend. Brash, spunky and so much fun. – TS
That’s My Story Collin Raye
1993 | Peak: #6
What do you think – the grooviest song about a guy trying to craft an alibi out of a backyard hammock ever? – DM
I Like It, I Love It Tim McGraw
1995 | Peak: #1
A melody destined for inclusion in Applebee’s commercials. A lyric about a horny guy and his teddy bear-loving girlfriend. I thought about trying to mount a good argument for it, but whatever. I know you sang along the first eight times you heard it. – DM
You Can’t Make a Heart Love Somebody George Strait
1994 | Peak: #1
A simply sung, heartbreaking story of a woman who desperately wishes the heart could take orders – and a man who bears the brunt of the reality that it can’t. – TS
Count Me In Deana Carter
1997 | Peak: #5
Easily the most understated of the five hit singles from her debut album, “Count Me In” is beautiful because of its innocent vulnerability. – KC
Where Do I Fit in the Picture Clay Walker
1994 | Peak: #11
Sure, Walker milks this forlorn ballad for all it’s worth, but his ability to dramatically emote is the success of his trademark tear-soaked voice. – LW
Some Girls Do Sawyer Brown
1992 | Peak: #1
Set to a hooky melody: Boy meets girl. Girl acts unimpressed. Boy knows better. Girl hooks up with boy. The end. – LW
I Want to Be Your Girlfriend Mary Chapin Carpenter
1997 | Peak: #35
Even in the nineties, Carpenter was mostly known for her introspective lyrics. That’s the best part of her songwriting, but hearing the lighter side of MCC from time to time is fun, too. – LW
Little Bitty Alan Jackson
1996 | Peak: #1
Alan Jackson has a knack for dressing up inriguing social themes as fluffy radio bait. Here, he counters the societal fixation on the “big” draws of money and prestige, expressing a peaceful acceptance of the rather small role most of us will ultimately play in the universe. We can’t all be famous or widely influential, but if we can love well and carry our chosen mantles with pride, things aren’t so bad. – DM
Not a Moment Too Soon Tim McGraw
1994 | Peak: #1
Some people find the whole “you saved my life” concept melodramatic, but I think if there’s anything in life that calls for melodrama, it’s love. McGraw’s testimony is sweet and believable, and the weighty lyrics are cushioned by a simple yet moving arrangement. – TS
Here in the Real World Alan Jackson
1990 | Peak: #3
Jackson’s breakthrough hit lamented that what we see in the movies – cowboy heroes, good winning out in the end, the boy getting the girl – doesn’t always work out that way in the real world. How fitting that he’d end up a real world cowboy hero, one of the good guys making great music for twenty years and counting. – KC
Most of your friends probably found you kind of boring when you were paired off and content. Now you’ve been dumped, and everyone’s got an opinion about what the relationship meant and what you should do next. Trisha is having none of it – just chocolate, a good mag and some much-needed alone time for her. – DM
As with the similar CMA category of Single of the Year, looking over the history of this category is the quickest way to get a snapshot of country music in a given year. There is a quite a bt of consensus among the two organizations here, and it is very rare for the winner at one show to not at least be nominated at the other. The winners list here would make a great 2-disc set of country classics, at least for those who don’t mind a little pop in their country. The ACM definitely has more of a taste for crossover than its CMA counterpart, and the organizations have only agreed on 17 singles in the past four decades and change.
As always, we start with a look at this year’s nominees and work our way back to 1968.
Zac Brown Band, “Toes”
Billy Currington, “People Are Crazy”
Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
Miranda Lambert, “White Liar”
David Nail, “Red Light”
There’s usually a “Huh?” nominee among the ACM list in recent years. This year, it’s David Nail. Good for him! Currington hasn’t won yet for this hit, even though he got himself a Grammy nomination for it. With Lady Antebellum reaching the upper ranks of the country and pop charts with “Need You Now”, my guess is that they’re the presumptive favorites. Then again, Miranda Lambert is a nominee for the third straight year, and she’s up for her biggest radio hit.
Trace Adkins, “You’re Gonna Miss This”
Jamey Johnson, “In Color”
Miranda Lambert, “Gunpowder & Lead”
Heidi Newfield, “Johnny and June”
Brad Paisley, “Waitin’ On a Woman”
Adkins has been a fairly regular fixture on country radio since 1996, but this was his first major industry award. He also won the ACM for Top New Male Vocalist in 1997.
Gary Allan, “Watching Airplanes”
Big & Rich, “Lost in This Moment”
Kenny Chesney, “Don’t Blink”
Miranda Lambert, “Famous in a Small Town”
“Stay” swept the Song of the Year categories at all three industry shows, along with winning the ACM for Single Record. Allan’s presence here shows that being a little West Coast can still help a guy at the ACMs.
Heartland, “I Loved Her First”
Rascal Flatts, “What Hurts the Most”
George Strait, “Give it Away”
Josh Turner, “Would You Go With Me”
Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats”
George Strait earned his second ACM Single Record award a decade after his first (“Check Yes or No”) and two and a half decades after having his first radio hit. Underwood won at the CMAs later that year. “Give it Away” is one of a small group of ACM winners to not receive a nomination at the CMA ceremony.
Gary Allan, “Best I Ever Had”
Brooks & Dunn, “Believe”
Brad Paisley, “Alcohol”
Sugarland, “Baby Girl”
Carrie Underwood, “Jesus, Take the Wheel”
In the battle of biblical hits, the CMA picked Brooks & Dunn but the ACM picked Carrie Underwood. Much like George Strait would later win a CMA trophy for a different single (“I Saw God Today”), Underwood later triumphed at the CMA with “Before He Cheats.”
Tim McGraw, “Live Like You Were Dying”
Brad Paisley with Alison Krauss, “Whiskey Lullaby”
Rascal Flatts, “Bless the Broken Road”
Keith Urban, “Days Go By”
Gretchen Wilson, “Redneck Woman”
Lee Ann Womack, “I May Hate Myself in the Morning”
Because McGraw picked up the trophy at the CMAs in 2004, the field was cleared for Womack to win the CMA later in 2005. McGraw had won the ACM before for “It’s Your Love.”
Brooks & Dunn, “Red Dirt Road”
Alan Jackson with Jimmy Buffett, “It’s Five O’ Clock Somewhere”
Alan Jackson, “Remember When”
Toby Keith, “American Soldier”
Randy Travis, “Three Wooden Crosses”
Among all the lead nominees, only Toby Keith wasn’t a previous winner. Still, the award went to the new alcoholic’s creed, winning over a more pensive Jackson track and a big comeback hit for Randy Travis.
Kenny Chesney, “The Good Stuff”
Toby Keith, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)”
Trick Pony, “Just What I Do”
Keith Urban, “Somebody Like You”
Mark Wills, “19 Somethin’”
Chesney spent nearly two months at #1 with this hit, perhaps giving him the edge over the other mega-hits at radio from Keith, Urban, and Wills. As for the Trick Pony nomination, somebody really should find out what Heidi Newfield has on those ACM voters.
Brooks & Dunn, “Ain’t Nothin’ ‘Bout You”
Diamond Rio, “One More Day”
Alan Jackson, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”
Toby Keith, “I Wanna Talk About Me”
Travis Tritt, “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive”
Jackson’s powerful 9/11 reflection stands out as the only ballad among his four ACM Single Record victories.
Toby Keith, “How Do You Like Me Now?!”
John Michael Montgomery, “The Little Girl”
Jamie O’Neal, “There is No Arizona”
Aaron Tippin, “Kiss This”
Lee Ann Womack with Sons of the Desert, “I Hope You Dance”
Toby Keith’s run of four consecutive nominations began this year. His album of the same name proved victorious that evening. Womack’s massive hit became an instant standard, and is incidentally the most recent winner to also be a genuine crossover hit.
Dixie Chicks, “Ready to Run”
Tim McGraw, “Please Remember Me”
Brad Paisley, “He Didn’t Have to Be”
George Strait, “Write This Down”
As pop hits go, this one was a monster. “Amazed” even topped the Hot 100, the first country single to do so since “Islands in the Stream.”
Faith Hill, “This Kiss”
Martina McBride, “A Broken Wing”
Shania Twain, “You’re Still the One”
Steve Wariner, “Holes in the Floor of Heaven”
The Wilkinsons, “26 Cents”
Hill and hubby Tim McGraw each have two ACM trophies in this category, one solo and one shared.
Diamond Rio, “How Your Love Makes Me Feel”
Tim McGraw with Faith Hill, “It’s Your Love”
LeAnn Rimes, “How Do I Live”
George Strait, “Carrying Your Love With Me”
Trisha Yearwood, “How Do I Live (from “Con Air”)”
While Yearwood had won over Rimes at the Grammys a few weeks earlier, the ACM sidestepped the big controversy of the year and gave the trophy to the biggest hit in the bunch.
Brooks & Dunn, “My Maria”
Deana Carter, “Strawberry Wine”
Tracy Lawrence, “Time Marches On”
LeAnn Rimes, “Blue”
George Strait, “Carried Away”
It’s rare that the ACM goes with the song that was least successful at radio, but don’t let that #10 peak of “Blue” fool you. That hit was responsible for millions of record sales.
Brooks & Dunn, “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone”
Faith Hill, “It Matters to Me”
Tim McGraw, “I Like It, I Love It”
George Strait, “Check Yes or No”
Shania Twain, “Any Man of Mine”
It was a stroke of marketing brilliance: add two singles to a box set of a genre superstar. When the first single became one of his biggest hits, the box set quickly became the top selling in country music history.
Joe Diffie, “Third Rock From the Sun”
Vince Gill, “Tryin’ to Get Over You”
Alan Jackson, “Livin’ On Love”
Tim McGraw, “Don’t Take the Girl”
John Michael Montgomery, “I Swear”
There have been a few wedding standards to win this award, though Montgomery’s hit didn’t cross over in its original form.
Clint Black with Wynonna, “A Bad Goodbye”
Garth Brooks, “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up)”
Alan Jackson, “Chattahoochee”
Reba McEntire with Linda Davis, “Does He Love You”
Dwight Yoakam, “Ain’t That Lonely Yet”
Jackson won the ACM with his massive hit, but the McEntire/Davis duet and the Yoakam track were Grammy winners.
John Anderson, “Straight Tequila Night”
Brooks & Dunn, “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”
Billy Ray Cyrus, “Achy Breaky Heart”
Collin Raye, “Love, Me”
Tanya Tucker, “Two Sparrows in a Hurricane”
Brooks & Dunn are among the most nominated artists in this category’s history, but this is their only victory.
Clint Black, “Where Are You Now”
Garth Brooks, “Shameless”
Alan Jackson, “Don’t Rock the Jukebox”
Travis Tritt, “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)”
Trisha Yearwood, “She’s in Love With the Boy”
This was Jackson’s first major industry award.
Alabama, “Jukebox in My Mind”
Garth Brooks, “Friends in Low Places”
Vince Gill, “When I Call Your Name”
Alan Jackson, “Here in the Real World”
Shenandoah, “Next to You, Next to Me”
Garth-mania was beginning to peak in 1991. He swept the ACMs that year.
Clint Black, “Better Man”
Garth Brooks, “If Tomorrow Never Comes”
Patty Loveless, “Timber I’m Falling in Love”
Keith Whitley, “I’m No Stranger to the Rain”
Hank Williams & Hank Williams Jr., “There’s a Tear in My Beer”
Clint Black is one of only three artists in the last twenty years to win for their first proper single, with Carrie Underwood and LeAnn Rimes being the other two.
Kathy Mattea, “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses”
K.T. Oslin, “I’ll Always Come Back”
Ricky Van Shelton, “I’ll Leave This World Loving You”
Randy Travis, “I Told You So”
Keith Whitley, “Don’t Close Your Eyes”
Mattea’s award-winning hit had such a high profile that it was even referenced in the dialog of the hit movie Rain Man.
Restless Heart, “I’ll Still Be Loving You”
Ricky Van Shelton, “Somebody Lied”
George Strait, “All My Ex’s Live in Texas”
Randy Travis, “Forever and Ever, Amen”
Hank Williams Jr., “Born to Boogie”
Travis won for the second year in a row with what would become his signature hit.
Alabama, “Touch Me When We’re Dancing”
Janie Fricke, “Always Have, Always Will”
The Judds, “Rockin’ With the Rhythm of the Rain”
Reba McEntire, “Whoever’s in New England”
Randy Travis, “On the Other Hand”
This was technically his first single, but when released under the name Randy Traywick, it bombed. Warner Bros. then released “1982″ under Randy Travis, and it went top ten. They then re-released this song, and it became his first #1 hit.
Lee Greenwood, “Dixie Road”
Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, “Highwayman”
The Judds, “Love is Alive”
Mel McDaniel, “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On”
Hank Williams Jr., “I’m For Love”
So successful was this winning single that the four legends would go on to release future collaborations as the Highwaymen.
Alabama, “When We Make Love”
Julio Iglesias & Willie Nelson, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”
The Judds, “Why Not Me”
John Schneider, “I’ve Been Around Enough to Know”
Conway Twitty, “I Don’t Know a Thing About Love (The Moon Song)”
Say what you want about this winner, but it was popular enough to sell two million 45s.
John Anderson, “Swingin’”
Anne Murray, “A Little Good News”
Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard, “Pancho and Lefty”
Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton, “Islands in the Stream”
Shelly West, “José Cuervo”
Another pop smash that moved two million 45s. Is there anybody over 30 who can’t sing along to the chorus?
David Frizzell, “I’m Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home”
Willie Nelson, “Always on My Mind”
Kenny Rogers, “Love Will Turn You Around”
Ricky Skaggs, “Crying My Heart Out Over You”
Nelson’s had quite a few signature hits, but none bigger than this one.
Rosanne Cash, “Seven Year Ache”
David Frizzell & Shelly West, “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma”
Barbara Mandrell, “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”
Ronnie Milsap, “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me”
Oak Ridge Boys, “Elvira”
This might be the most pop-flavored lineup in category’s history. Even the Mandrell hit doth protest too much.
George Jones, “He Stopped Loving Her Today”
Johnny Lee, “Lookin’ For Love”
Dolly Parton, “9 to 5″
Eddie Rabbitt, “Drivin’ My Life Away”
Don Williams, “I Believe in You”
Jones capped his biggest comeback in a career defined by them with several awards for this classic hit.
Charlie Daniels Band, “Devil Went Down to Georgia”
Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers Band, “All the Gold in California”
Crystal Gayle, “Half the Way”
Waylon Jennings, “Amanda”
Kenny Rogers, “Coward of the County”
West Coast represent!
Crystal Gayle, “Talking in Your Sleep”
Loretta Lynn, “Out of My Head and Back in My Bed”
Willie Nelson, “Georgia On My Mind”
Waylon & Willie, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys”
Don Williams, “Tulsa Time”
In a category of superstars, the Gentle Giant of Country Music was the victor.
Debby Boone, “You Light Up My Life”
Crystal Gayle, “Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue”
Waylon Jennings, “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)”
Kenny Rogers, “Lucille”
Linda Ronstadt, “Blue Bayou”
All of these records made a big impact on both the country and the pop chart.
Mickey Gilley, “Bring it On Home to Me”
Loretta Lynn, “Somebody Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missin’ Tonight)”
Marty Robbins, “El Paso City”
Red Sovine, “Teddy Bear”
Waylon & Willie, “Good Hearted Woman”
A surprising win, perhaps fueled by the momentum of Gilley’s previous single, “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time.”
Glen Campbell, “Rhinestone Cowboy”
Freddie Fender, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls”
Mickey Gilley, “Overnight Sensation”
Willie Nelson, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”
Kenny Starr, “The Blind Man in the Bleachers”
Campbell made quite the comeback with this one, and it later inspired the Dolly Parton film vehicle Rhinestone, which earned an ACM nomination of its own for the Tex Ritter Award.
John Denver, “Back Home Again”
Merle Haggard, “Things Aren’t Funny Anymore”
Ronnie Milsap, “(I’d Be) A Legend in My Time”
Cal Smith, “Country Bumpkin”
Billy Swan, “I Can Help”
Smith may not have gotten all the recognition that his talent warranted, but he made two undeniable classics: “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking”, and his winner here.
Merle Haggard, “If We Make it Through December”
Byron MacGregor, “The Americans”
Jeanne Pruett, “Satin Sheets”
Charlie Rich, “Behind Closed Doors”
Charlie Rich, “The Most Beautiful Girl”
Rich’s two hits were so big that even with vote-splitting, he still emerged the winner.
Donna Fargo, “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.”
Merle Haggard, “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)”
Johnny Rodriguez, “Pass Me By (If You’re Only Passing Through)”
Jerry Wallace, “If You Leave Me Tonight I’ll Cry”
Faron Young, “Four in the Morning”
Fargo was a local star on the West Coast before she broke through nationwide with this hit, dominating the 1973 ACM Awards as a result.
Merle Haggard, “Carolyn”
Freddie Hart, “Easy Loving”
Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, “Lead Me On”
Loretta Lynn, “One’s On the Way”
Charley Pride, “Kiss an Angel Good Morning”
This gold-selling classic helped Hart triumph over the superstars of his day.
Lynn Anderson, “Rose Garden”
Merle Haggard, “The Fightin’ Side of Me”
Anne Murray, “Snowbird”
Ray Price, “For the Good Times”
Sammi Smith, “Help Me Make it Through the Night”
Each one of these is a classic in its own right. In a battle of Kristofferson-penned hits, Price emerged victorious, though Smith won the CMA later that year.
Glen Campbell, “Try a Little Kindness”
Johnny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue”
Merle Haggard, “Okie From Muskogee”
Billy Mize, “Make it Rain”
Elvis Presley, “Don’t Cry Daddy”
Freddy Weller, “Games People Play”
Tammy Wynette, “Stand By Your Man”
Haggard’s only victory in this category came on a night where he also won Album of the Year for the only time in several nominations.
Glen Campbell, “Wichita Lineman”
Merle Haggard, “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am”
Merle Haggard, “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde”
Merle Haggard, “Mama Tried”
Roger Miller, “Little Green Apples”
Miller’s known for his legendary songwriting, but his winning hit here was penned by Bobby Russell.
Glen Campbell, “Burning Bridges”
Glen Campbell, “Gentle on My Mind”
The Gosdin Bros., “Hangin’ On”
Bobbie Gentry, “Ode to Billy Joe”
Merle Haggard, “Branded Man”
Merle Haggard, “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive”
A young Vern Gosdin made up half of the nominated Gosdin Bros., a nice historical footnote to the first year of this category. Glen Campbell’s victory was appropriately West Coast for the ACMs first attempt at honoring the national country music scene.
Facts & Feats:
(4) – Alan Jackson
(3) – Willie Nelson
(2) – Glen Campbell, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Kenny Rogers, George Strait, Randy Travis
The ACM Awards has traditionally been overshadowed by the CMA Awards, despite its longer existence. This is for several reasons. First, the ACM originally existed to emphasize the West Coast country music scene, whereas the CMA Awards represented Nashville from the start. The ACM has also been more commercially-oriented from the beginning, as the history of this category proves. Eighteen of the last twenty winners in this ACM category are multi-platinum sellers, and the organization allowed greatest hits albums to compete for more than a decade.
Still, the ACM category has bragging rights of its own. Critically-acclaimed albums like Storms of Life, Trio, Killin’ Time and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend won at the ACMs but were overlooked by the CMAs. Additionally, women have also been far more successful at this ceremony. Only five women have ever won the CMA Album trophy, and one of them was Sissy Spacek! At the ACMs, women have dominated the category for the past three years, and the category has honored everyone from Loretta Lynn and Donna Fargo to K.T. Oslin and Shania Twain.
A special note about ACM flashbacks. Like the Grammys, the ACMs issue their award for a given year the following year, so the awards for 2009, for example, are given out in 2010. For the purposes of the flashbacks, Country Universe notes the year the award is presented. While the ACM first presented awards in 1966, the Album category wasn’t introduced until 1968.
As with other flashbacks, we begin with a look at this year’s nominees:
Lady Antebellum, Lady Antebellum
Miranda Lambert, Revolution
Brad Paisley, American Saturday Night
Carrie Underwood, Play On
Zac Brown Band, The Foundation
Three previous winners – Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, and Carrie Underwood – compete against the debut albums of two hot bands. Lady Antebellum and Zac Brown Band each picked up a Grammy this year and are well represented on the rest of the ACM ballot. This is a very competitive race. Even the sales-friendly nature of the ACMs doesn’t help much here, as four of these albums are platinum and Lambert’s just went gold.
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
Montgomery Gentry, Back When I Knew It All
George Strait, Troubadour
Taylor Swift, Fearless
Carrie Underwood, Carnival Ride
Taylor Swift became the third consecutive female artist to win in this category, a feat that would’ve seemed unthinkable earlier in the middle part of the decade, when country radio all but exiled women from radio.
Rodney Atkins, If You’re Going Through Hell
Kenny Chesney, Just Who I Am: Poets and Pirates
Miranda Lambert, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Brad Paisley, 5th Gear
Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift
A visibly shocked Lambert accepted the trophy for her critically acclaimed sophomore set. While it did go gold, it remains an anomaly among ACM album winners. You have to go all the way back to 1979 (Oak Ridge Boys) to find another ACM album winner that didn’t sell platinum or higher.
Brooks & Dunn, Hillbilly Deluxe
Vince Gill, These Days
Rascal Flatts, Me and My Gang
George Strait, It Just Comes Natural
Carrie Underwood, Some Hearts
Carrie Underwood became the first solo female artist to win this award in eleven years with her 7 million-selling Some Hearts.
Gary Allan, Tough All Over
Brad Paisley, Time Well Wasted
Rascal Flatts, Feels Like Today
Sugarland, Twice the Speed of Life
Lee Ann Womack, There’s More Where That Came From
A strikingly strong lineup, with the victory going to Brad Paisley. Due to differences in eligibility between the two shows, there are two CMA winners in this category. Not only did Paisley repeat his victory the following fall, Womack won the CMA the previous year.
Kenny Chesney, When the Sun Goes Down
Sara Evans, Restless
Tim McGraw, Live Like You Were Dying
Keith Urban, Be Here
Gretchen Wilson, Here for the Party
Though he’s always been popular with the CMA and Grammy voters, Urban’s only Album award to date came courtesy of the ACMs. Oddly enough, they haven’t nominated him since.
Brooks & Dunn, Red Dirt Road
Toby Keith, Shock’n Y’All
Martina McBride, Martina
Brad Paisley, Mud on the Tires
George Strait, Honkytonkville
On an evening where he won several major awards, Keith picked up his second Album of the Year trophy from the ACMs for an album that included the #1 hits “American Soldier”, “Whiskey Girl”, and “I Love This Bar.”
Kenny Chesney, No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems
Dixie Chicks, Home
Alan Jackson, Drive
Toby Keith, Unleashed
Trick Pony, On a Mission
If you think all of those 2009 nominations for Heidi Newfield were surprising, check out Trick Pony’s presence in this category among four albums that sold more than 4 million copies each. Alan Jackson picked up his third trophy in this category for the album that included “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” and “Drive (For Daddy Gene)”.
Brooks & Dunn, Steers & Stripes
Toby Keith, Pull My Chain
Tim McGraw, Set This Circus Down
Soundtrack, O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Travis Tritt, Down the Road I Go
Big comeback albums for Brooks & Dunn and Travis Tritt were nominated, but it was no surprise to see the victory go to the landmark soundtrack that sold more than eight million copies in the end.
Johnny Cash, American III: Solitary Man
Billy Gilman, One Voice
Toby Keith, How Do You Like Me Now?!
Brad Paisley, Who Needs Pictures
Lee Ann Womack, I Hope You Dance
Even Keith was a veteran in comparison to Gilman and Paisley, who were nominated with their debut albums, but the biggest surprise was the nomination of Cash for his third project with Rick Rubin. Even the CMA didn’t recognize those collaborations until the fourth volume and “Hurt.”
Asleep at the Wheel, Ride With Bob
Dixie Chicks, Fly
Faith Hill, Breathe
George Jones, Cold Hard Truth
Tim McGraw, A Place in the Sun
An impressively eclectic lineup is unsurprisingly represented by the consensus choice Dixie Chicks, the one act that everybody used to agree on.
Garth Brooks, Double Live
Dixie Chicks, Wide Open Spaces
Faith Hill, Faith
Jo Dee Messina, I’m Alright
George Strait, One Step at a Time
For the fourth time in the nineties, the trophy went to an artist’s breakthrough album. After their shocking win at the Grammys a few weeks earlier, this Dixie Chicks victory wasn’t quite as surprising.
Garth Brooks, Sevens
Patty Loveless, Long Stretch of Lonesome
Tim McGraw, Everywhere
George Strait, Carrying Your Love With Me
Shania Twain, Come On Over
Strait’s third victory in this category tied him with Alabama for most wins. It was also his first album to top the overall Billboard 200, a feat he’s repeated with three additional albums.
Brooks & Dunn, Borderline
Tracy Lawrence, Time Marches On
Patty Loveless, The Trouble With the Truth
LeAnn Rimes, Blue
George Strait, Blue Clear Sky
Strait’s victory came with an album that featured the #1 hits “Blue Clear Sky” and “Carried Away”, along with the rodeo-themed “I Can Still Make Cheyenne.”
Brooks & Dunn, Waitin’ On Sundown
Patty Loveless, When Fallen Angels Fly
Tim McGraw, All I Want
George Strait, Lead On
Shania Twain, The Woman in Me
Although Loveless won the CMA award the previous fall, the ACM sided with the Grammy winner for Best Country Album, Shania Twain’s landmark set, The Woman in Me.
Garth Brooks, In Pieces
Mary Chapin Carpenter, Stones in the Road
Vince Gill, When Love Finds You
Alan Jackson, Who I Am
Tim McGraw, Not a Moment Too Soon
McGraw’s only victory in this category came with his first nomination. This set remains his top-selling to date, thanks to the presence of the massive hits “Don’t Take the Girl”, “Indian Outlaw”, “Down on the Farm”, and the title track.
Brooks & Dunn, Hard Workin’ Man
Billy Ray Cyrus, It Won’t Be the Last
Vince Gill, I Still Believe In You
Alan Jackson, A Lot About Livin’ (And a Little ‘Bout Love)
Various Artists, Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles
Dwight Yoakam, This Time
Alan Jackson picked up his second victory in this category with an album that included “Chattahoochee”, which would remain his biggest hit for nearly a decade.
Garth Brooks, The Chase
Brooks & Dunn, Brand New Man
Mary Chapin Carpenter, Come On Come On
Billy Ray Cyrus, Some Gave All
These are some big selling albums. Wynonna and Mary Chapin Carpenter both sold five million and they are tied for last place among the nominees. It’s easy to forget how fresh the Brooks & Dunn sound was when it first arrived on the scene. Five hits, including the classic title track, “Neon Moon”, and “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”, helped power them to a win.
Garth Brooks, No Fences
Garth Brooks, Ropin’ the Wind
Alan Jackson, Don’t Rock the Jukebox
Ricky Van Shelton, Backroads
Travis Tritt, It’s All About to Change
In perhaps the most bizarre moment in this category’s history, Garth Brooks competed again with No Fences, which won the same award last year. Alan Jackson emerged victorious with his sophomore set.
Alabama, Pass it On Down
Garth Brooks, No Fences
Vince Gill, When I Call Your Name
Alan Jackson, Here in the Real World
Ricky Van Shelton, RVS III
No Fences includes the Garth Brooks classics “Friends in Low Places”, “Unanswered Prayers”, and “The Thunder Rolls”. It remains his highest-selling album to date, and second only to Shania Twain’s Come On Over among all single-disc country albums in history.
Clint Black, Killin’ Time
Rodney Crowell, Diamonds and Dirt
Kathy Mattea, Willow in the Wind
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Vol. II
Randy Travis, Old 8×10
The winning album demonstrates why Clint Black was the head of the Class of ’89, even though he’d soon be overshadowed by fellow newbie Garth Brooks.
Vern Gosdin, Chiseled in Stone
K.T. Oslin, This Woman
Ricky Van Shelton, Loving Proof
George Strait, If You Ain’t Lovin’ You Ain’t Livin’
Dwight Yoakam, Buenos Noches From a Lonely Room
K.T. Oslin dominated the awards circuit in 1988 and 1989, with her final victories coming at the ACM Awards. Her Album of the Year winner included the #1 hit “Hold Me”, along with the top five hits “Hey Bobby” and the title track.
The Judds, Heart Land
Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris, Trio
George Strait, Ocean Front Property
Randy Travis, Always and Forever
Hank Williams Jr., Born to Boogie
The classic project by legends Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris also won a CMA for Vocal Event and a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.
The Judds, Rockin’ With the Rhythm
Ricky Skaggs, Live in London
George Strait, 7
Randy Travis, Storms of Life
Dwight Yoakam, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.
The neo-traditionalist movement at its peak, with a win by its standard-bearing artist with his standard-bearing debut album.
Alabama, 40 Hour Week
Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson, Highwayman
The Judds, Why Not Me
George Strait, Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind
Hank Williams Jr., Five-O
The only #1 hit from this album was the title track, but “The Fireman” and “The Cowboy Rides Away” have since become signature songs for the legendary artist.
Alabama, Roll On
Earl Thomas Conley, Don’t Make it Easy On Me
Ricky Skaggs, Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown
George Strait, Right or Wrong
Hank Williams Jr., Man of Steel
Their third victory in four years came on the strength of the hits “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler)”, “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)”, “(There’s a) Fire in the Night”, and “When We Make Love.”
Alabama, The Closer You Get…
John Anderson, Wild & Blue
Merle Haggard, Going Where the Lonely Go
Merle Haggard & Willie Nelson, Pancho & Lefty
Ricky Skaggs, Highways & Heartaches
Over a field of traditionalists old and new, the pop-country supergroup Alabama won their second Album award. In addition to the hit title track, The Closer You Get… included the hits “Lady Down on Love” and “Dixieland Delight.”
Alabama, Mountain Music
Willie Nelson, Always On My Mind
Kenny Rogers, Love Will Turn You Around
Ricky Skaggs, Waitin’ For the Sun to Shine
Don Williams, Listen to the Radio
Nelson’s biggest single powered the album of the same name to victory. It also included a pair of #2 hits: “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning” and “Let it Be Me.”
Alabama, Feels So Right
Rosanne Cash, Seven Year Ache
George Jones, Still the Same Ole Me
Oak Ridge Boys, Fancy Free
Dolly Parton, 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs
With the exception of George Jones, all the nominees here enjoyed significant pop success with these projects. Alabama won their first trophy in this category with Feels So Right, which included the hit title track, “Old Flame”, and their biggest crossover hit, “Love in the First Degree.”
Charley Pride, There’s a Little Bit of Hank in Me
Kenny Rogers, Greatest Hits
Soundtrack, Coal Miner’s Daughter
Soundtrack, Urban Cowboy
Don Williams, I Believe in You
For all that it’s been maligned, the Urban Cowboy soundtrack does have a lot of classic hits on it. Some of them were recycled, like “Devil Went Down to Georgia” and “Lyin’ Eyes”, but some were introduced on the soundtrack, most notably Anne Murray’s “Could I Have This Dance” and Johnny Lee’s “Lookin’ For Love.”
Larry Gatlin, Straight Ahead
Emmylou Harris, Blue Kentucky Girl
Waylon Jennings, Greatest Hits
Willie Nelson, Willie Sings Kristofferson
Kenny Rogers, Kenny
Those of you wondering how on earth Larry Gatlin was the winner in this field should know that this was actually a platinum-selling album. Perhaps its big hit, “All the Gold in California”, endeared the project to west coast voters.
Ronnie Milsap, It Was Almost Like a Song
Anne Murray, Let’s Keep it That Way
Willie Nelson, Stardust
Oak Ridge Boys, Y’All Come Back Saloon
Kenny Rogers & Dottie West, Every Time Two Fools Collide
They had made several albums as gospel stars, but it was their first big country hit that fueled this win for Album of the Year.
Waylon Jennings, Ol’ Waylon
Dolly Parton, Here You Come Again
Elvis Presley, Moody Blue
Kenny Rogers, Kenny Rogers
Conway Twitty, Greatest Hits Vol. II
This self-titled album was renamed “Lucille” in later pressings to capitalize on its biggest hit.
Mickey Gilley, Gilley’s Smokin’
Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser, Wanted! The Outlaws
Loretta Lynn, Somebody Somewhere
Marty Robbins, El Paso City
Conway Twitty, Now and Then
Gilley’s winning album features his most well known hit, “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time.” It’s the most recent album in the category’s history that hasn’t reached at least gold status.
Glen Campbell, Rhinestone Cowboy
Freddie Fender, Before the Next Teardrop Falls
Merle Haggard, Keep Movin’ On
Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty, Feelins’
Willie Nelson, Red Headed Stranger
This shared award is the only Album trophy that either Lynn or Twitty won from the ACM or CMA, though Lynn did go on to win Best Country Album three decades later at the Grammys.
John Denver, Back Home Again
Merle Haggard, Merle Haggard Presents His 30th Album
Loretta Lynn, They Don’t Make ‘Em Like My Daddy
Cal Smith, Country Bumpkin
Bob Wills, For the Last Time
Denver’s biggest country album, it spent thirteen weeks atop the country album chart. The title track topped the chart, and “Annie’s Song” became a wedding standard.
Merle Haggard, I Love Dixie Blues…so I Recorded “Live” in New Orleans
Loretta Lynn, Love is the Foundation
Charlie Rich, Behind Closed Doors
Johnny Rodriguez, Introducing Johnny Rodriguez
Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn, Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man
Rich’s classic set has sold four million copies, an unheard of tally for a country album from this time period. It didn’t hurt that the title track and “The Most Beautiful Girl” were crossover hits, with the latter actually topping the pop singles chart.
Mac Davis, Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me
Donna Fargo, The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.
Merle Haggard, The Best of the Best of Merle Haggard
Merle Haggard, It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)
Merle Haggard, Let Me Tell You About a Song
Freddie Hart, Bless Your Heart
Donna Fargo triumphed in a field of six albums, half of which were recorded by Merle Haggard! The Fargo set produced two million-selling singles – the title track and “Funny Face”.
Merle Haggard, Hag
Merle Haggard, Someday We’ll Look Back
Freddie Hart, Easy Loving
Ray Price, I Won’t Mention it Again
Charley Pride, Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs
The title track was a massive hit, helping Hart’s Easy Loving reach gold status and spend nine weeks atop the country albums chart.
Glen Campbell, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Album
Merle Haggard, The Fightin’ Side of Me
Merle Haggard, A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills)
Ray Price, For the Good Times
Charley Pride, Charley Pride’s 10th Album
Who knows how many times Haggard could’ve won this award if he wasn’t nominated against himself? This year, Ray Price’s For the Good Times was the victor, thanks to the Kristofferson-penned title track.
Glen Campbell, Live
Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison
Merle Haggard, Okie From Muskogee
Charley Pride, Best of Charley Pride
Tammy Wynette, Greatest Hits
Haggard’s only victory in this category was for a live album. Incidentally, he won over two other live albums and a pair of greatest hits sets.
This is a guest contribution by regular commenter, Michael Hawkins, who posts as Highwayman3.
The movies have the Oscars, the world of music has the Grammys, and that world subdivided into the country genre has the CM’s—the annual extravaganza that we fans look forward to every year. We see our favorites perform, win awards and lose with smiling gracious faces, or not [insert the inevitable Faith Hill reference here]. Everyone picks their favorites in each category as to who they’d like to win. But what about the show itself, the backdrop for which these prestigious awards are presented?
Recently, there have been posts at both The 9513 and on this site where people have been weighing in on their favorite moments from these awards. It occurred to me that none of those moments have happened in the last few years. The awards have slid into mediocrity, which is a fitting representation of the current state of country music. I understand producing these awards must be tough because you have to be everything to everyone, and acknowledge the traditional country, the Disney country, the old and new alike, and bring in people who don’t belong for the sake of ratings.
What’s wrong with the show?
The awards themselves seem like an after thought, filler in between all the endless performances. The main suspense isn’t who wins, but rather, how many performances the producers can fit in 3 hours. Also, it’s become an award show that is ashamed of its roots, barely mentioning who is inducted into the Hall of Fame. Any artist with the slightest sign of a wrinkle, regardless of their legend status is shunned and hidden in the audience next to seat fillers and radio contest winners. It’s an award show with self esteem issues, not cool enough to stand on its own. You can bet the main attraction used to promote this year’s show will be a non-country performer like Kid Rock, The Eagles of last year, and Jamie Foxx of two years ago.
What can be done?
Well, the first order of business would be for the Sommet Center to take out a one day restraining order from Miley Cyrus on November 11, 2009, or better yet, the whole Cyrus family, Billy Ray, Noah, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Yes, she’ll bring in ratings, but we’ve gotten along fine without her for 40 plus years.
The CMA’s need to take a cue from the Grammy awards, or even the American Idol finale. There are so many surprises, legends, moving moments, coming at you, left right and center, you don’t know what’s coming next, all you know is you’re in for the ride, you’re loving every second and you’re talking about it the next day. Last year, the biggest surprise was Shania Twain presenting Entertainer of the Year, which she has done at least 3 times before, and to those who keep up on country news, it was hardly a surprise at all.
What can possibly be done to make the night more entertaining?
How about taking a cue from this yearis Academy Awards and only announce a handful of performers, leaving the rest a mystery? Don’t tell us who and what everyone’s performing, which leaves more room for surprises. Also, like the Oscars, don’t announce who is presenting, and before each award have a mini-montage of past winners. Then at the end, the curtain opens and a surprise past winner comes out and shares insights on their winning experience. Instead of the otherwise cheesy dialogue or weird presenter pairings, it would make more sense if they just brought out Trisha Yearwood for Female Vocalist, Vince for Male, The Judds for Duo, Alabama forGroup, and hand it off to the winner like an Olympic torch or rite of passage. This way of thinking would work out great for the Entertainer of the Year category, in bringing out past winners, Roy Clark, and Barbara Mandrell, who also happen to be this year’s Hall of Fame inductees.
Speaking of the Hall of Fame, I would prefer it if it went back to how it used to be with a taped bio and artists performing a medley of hits. But even that is too much to ask. If they are going to cut it out entirely, the least they could do is show 3 separate 30-60 second bios of each of the inductees at different times as they are going to commercial and have them wave from the audience. Or, from the paragraph above, show a taped piece just before Barbara and Roy present Entertainer.
The most boring parts of the show are seeing full performances from all the mundane hits of the past year. Was it necessary for Darius Rucker to perform “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” last year when he wasn’t nominated? Yes, it’s necessary for the biggest hits to be performed, but does every top 5 hit of the past year have to be sung? Instead, encourage them to sing unique songs, like Alan Jackson in 2005 performing, “Wonderful Tonight”, songs you’ll actually remember more than 5 minutes after they are performed. Another idea, which the Grammys have down pat, is pairing people up. Think of the Al Green, Keith Urban, Justin Timberlake and Boys 2 Men grouping of earlier this year. For the CMA’s, this would be a perfect year to acknowledge the 20th anniversary of the hat act boom of 89. Why not bring out Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Garth Brooks, and Travis Tritt for a small medley?
Instead of each of the new artist nominees performing their full songs – do we really want to see Julianne Hough performing a full version of her song this year? - it would be great if they stole from the ACM’s all-star opener this year, and did the same thing with the 5 nominees. Lady Antebellum can be the ring leader like Brooks & Dunn were at the ACMs, and they all can perform a small portion of their hits. To wrap it up, Lady Antebellum can present the award. This will allow more time for the Collaboration and Video of the year awards to be back on the telecast.
If you ran the CMAs, thinking creatively but realistically, which special moments would you create that could go down in history and make country’s biggest night more fun to watch? How would you make George Strait’s performance less predictable? And how would you measure that Miley restraining order? In inches, feet, yards, or miles?
The following is a guest contribution from Scott O’Brien.
“But someone killed tradition. And for that someone should hang.” –Larry Cordle & Larry Shell, “Murder on Music Row”
Dan Milliken’s recent post got me thinking: The country music I grew up with is nothing like the music on country radio today. If I turned on today’s country radio in 1988, I might not realize it was a country station and keep right on flipping. Back then, Randy Travis and Keith Whitley’s traditional twang ruled the airwaves. Today, they are dominated by the giggly teeny-bopper ditties of Taylor Swift and the boy band sounds of Rascal Flatts. Did they get away with murder on music row? Well, let’s start by briefly uncovering country’s traditional roots.
What is traditional country music? Is it simply anything from the past? That seems too broad; Shania Twain wasn’t traditional. Anything that isn’t pop? Maybe, but that is still a rather wide and subjective net. To me, traditional country music is honky tonk music. It heavily employs steel guitars, fiddles, and forlorn vocals. It moves at a slow pace. There are no drums or electric guitars. The songs typically deal with heavy topics such as heartbreak, cheating, or drinking, with a ballad here and there. In most cases, the goal is to induce pain. Not bad pain, but the therapeutic empathy that tugs your heart and helps you through your personal struggles. The patron saint of traditional country is Hank Williams. Hank’s first disciple is George Jones. Jones’ first disciple is Alan Jackson. The traditional template is supposed to help us decipher what is country and what is not. After all, what makes country music country if not fiddles and cheatin’ songs?
These days, traditionalists have a legitimate beef. When you turn on the radio, you don’t hear much steel guitar. Instead, you hear what might pass for 1990s pop, replete with fluffy repetitive lyrics, catchy drum beats, guitar riffs, and sex appeal. We aren’t preserving country music when the CMT Music Awards feature the B-52s and Def Leppard in lieu of John Anderson and Charley Pride. Was there a tribute to recently deceased traditionalist Vern Gosdin? No way. Do today’s artists “tear your heart out when they sing”? Not a chance. Is Keith Urban going to fill Conway Twitty’s shoes? Not a prayer. You know we are in trouble when pop-infused zipwire-flier Garth Brooks sounds more like Merle Haggard than today’s stars. Heck, just listen to Taylor Swift’s latest album. If that is country, I’ll kiss your ass. Nashville, we have a problem.
But let’s not go off the deep end just yet. Maybe traditionalists are thinking about things too narrowly. Country music is much more than Webb Pierce’s raw steel guitar-laden crooning. It always has been. Going back before Hank to the First Family of Country Music, the Carter family sound was an amalgam of several different sub-genres including Appalachian old-time, folk, and gospel. Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music, blended elements of jazz, gospel, old-time and blues to create some of the first country sounds. Marty Robbins played just about every musical style conceivable. Traditionalist hero Elvis Presley sang rockabilly. Johnny Cash had similar beginnings and even years later there was nothing “traditional” about his trademark up-tempo bass beat. Waylon Jennings’ music incorporated Buddy Holly’s rock-n-roll rhythm; he even wrote a song about how un-Hank-like his music was. Merle Haggard’s Bob Wills-inspired Bakersfield sound used amps and electric guitars. Even 1980s ACM Artist of the Decade Alabama shunned the steel guitar altogether and typically sang up-tempo, feel-good music. Yet these names are among the most venerated by traditionalists. What gives?
The problem is that traditionalists aren’t even sure what traditional country is. If it includes all artists who sold country records without crossing over to pop, the label is not very helpful. If it is strictly honky tonk, do we really want a bunch of Hank Williams clones? As great as he was, we surely do not. There has to be some updating – just ask Alan Jackson, who has innovated the traditionalist motif without sacrificing his authenticity. The genre has to evolve or it risks becoming boring and repetitive. Waylon Jennings understood this well (“It’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar/Where do we take it from here?”). Hank Williams’ own son realized it too after trying for years to replicate his father’s sound. His song “Young Country” directly attacked the tradition-or-else mentality: “We like some of the old stuff/We like some of the new/But we do our own choosing/We pick our own music/If you don’t mind, thank you.” He is right. Why draw lines? Strict uniformity is not desirable in any genre, particularly country, whose trademark is its diversity of influences, instruments, rhythms, voices, song topics, and stories.
So what should define today’s country music? It should pay tribute to the past by incorporating and updating its unique fusion of diverse influences. It doesn’t have to be strictly “traditional.” But country music needs to capture the sentiments of rural and working class America. It needs to cover painful topics like drinking and cheating. It needs to tell colorful stories. It needs to tear your heart out sometimes. It also needs to make you feel good sometimes. What it shouldn’t do is become pop music. When country is indistinguishable from Top 40, it loses its soul. Unfortunately, this has happened with the Keith Urbans, Rascal Flatts, and Taylor Swifts – all talented artists to be sure. But country artists? Not so much. Still, there are old warhorses like George Strait who carry the torch and newcomers like Jamey Johnson who give us hope that country’s soul will stay alive and well.
What do you know? Coming off of their invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry, Montgomery Gentry release their most country-sounding single in some time. The sound is a nice blend of Alabama, Hank Jr., and 70′s folk-rock, with a chorus ready-made for barroom singalongs and a colorful set of dobro fills.
It’s a credit to the songwriting that it manages to breathe life into a fairly tired theme. This whole “I’m proud of my broken family, gosh darn it” shtick has been done a good deal in recent years, and it’s been done well, with tracks like LeAnn Rimes’ “Family” and Eric Church’s “Sinners Like Me” providing some of the most memorable moments in those artists’ catalogs.
As with those examples, what elevates Montgomery Gentry’s take on the idea is its candor. Rather than try to falsely glamorize the relatives’ imperfections, as so many would-be Redneck Anthems would do, this song just throws them all out on the table, acknowledging them as they really are – not necessarily desirable, yet inescapable. Granted, the family does sound a little bit sensationalized, but the details are at least interesting enough to warrant a momentary suspension of disbelief.
I think a lot of people – particularly in the South – can relate to the social stigma of having so-called “bad stock” in their family, and I suspect they’ll really latch onto the humorous, “so what?” style of self-acceptance “Long Line of Losers” extols. I have to say that I’d like it a little more if the narrator gave a concrete example of what makes him such a loser – no fair spilling all his family’s beans and none of his own – but all in all, this is a good example of the Montgomery Gentry formula done right.
There is really no new way to pontificate on the fascinating longevity of George Strait’s career. Many, including myself, have speculated regarding the many possible reasons behind his staying power, but it is more than likely that many of the factors that we have already considered could be easily applied to other artists with lesser careers to show for it. Therefore, the consensus that can be agreed upon by most everyone is that George Strait is consistent. In the last three decades, without being loud or splashy in any way, Strait has consistently remained a vibrant country music artist, both on the charts and in concert sales. As a result, he is one of the most respected, if not intriguing, artists in the business.
On May 27, the Academy of Country Music honored George Strait as their Artist of the Decade in a two-hour CBS special. The show consisted of many of today’s biggest artists paying homage to Strait by singing the songs of the Man of Honor.
Unlike most tribute shows, this show moved along at a reasonably fast clip with few over-dramatic or slick moments to weigh it down, which was highly appropriate considering the man who was being honored that night.
The show opened with a rousing version of Strait’s Cajun flavored “Adalida” ably performed by Sugarland. Jennifer Nettle’s exaggerated drawl, while very different from Strait’s laid back vocals, gave the song energy and seemed to be a wise way to invigorate the crowd. Other energetic performances included a rocked-up version of “All My Exes Live in Texas” by Jack Ingram, which was fun but lacked the whimsical charm of Strait’s western swing flavored interpretation. Alan Jackson did a faithful steel laden cover of “The Fireman”, which is always sung at events such as these, though it’s certainly not one of Strait’s most interesting classics.
In probably one of the most disappointing performances of the night, Dierks Bentley, who is typically an intriguing vocalist, offered a weak and strained “Blue Clear Sky”, which, sadly, happens to be one of my favorite Strait songs. John Rich did not fare much better with his lifeless, uninspired rendering of one of Strait’s most revered hits, “Amarillo by Morning.” Instead of sounding like a professional, he more easily fit in with the Nashville Star contestants that he judged last summer who, incidentally, only sounded like decent karaoke singers at their best. In the not-as-bad-as-Rich-or-Bentley-but-still-not-very-memorable category was Brooks & Dunn. Their cover of “The Cowboy Rides Away” was fine, but it also lacked Strait’s easy charisma.
While most of this tribute show stuck rather closely to Strait’s own interpretations, there were a couple performances that tried to change things up a bit. As mentioned earlier, Jack Ingram added light rock to “All My Exes Live in Texas” and the other innovator was Jamie Foxx with a soulful cover of “You Look So Good in Love.” As someone who cannot fully appreciate R&B, it was difficult for me to get into his performance, though I could at least tell it was solid. Along with the R&B slant, Foxx changed Strait’s original regret filled monologue to an amusing “what does he got that I don’t?” diatribe. And we won’t even get into Foxx’s insistence that Strait’s singing is “sexy.”
As a diversion to the songs of George Strait, the past Artists of the Decade were honored throughout the show as well. Faith Hill did a respectable cover of Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough”, Martina McBride aptly covered Garth Brook’s “The Dance” and Montgomery Gentry rocked out with Alabama’s “Mountain Music.” One of the best performances of the evening, however, was Keith Urban’s tribute to Marty Robbins, which was in the form of a fabulous medley of three of Robbins’ beloved hits, including “Singing the Blues” (one of my favorite Robbins songs) “El Paso” and “A White Sport Coat (And A Pink Carnation)” (my all time favorite Robbins song). Urban’s performance proved that he is a master at singing country music, which only left me longing even more for hints of country sounds to show up on his most recent albums.
The person who was involved in the best performances of the show was Lee Ann Womack. With Jamey Johnson providing the speaking parts of “Give It Away”, Womack gave the female perspective of the song. The two voices melded perfectly together to reveal a possible duet partnership for the future that would surely be welcomed by many. In addition to her duet with Johnson, Womack sang a surprise song for Strait that was specifically written for the night called “Stand There And Sing.” While it would not necessarily be a standout song in a non-Strait centric environment, it was a moving tribute to George Strait’s simple charismatic entertaining style of “just standing there and singing”, which is something that he’s often criticized for doing.
As is supposedly the tradition of the Academy’s tribute shows, the previous Artist of the Decade passes the torch onto the newly anointed artist, which is what Garth Brooks did for George Strait. Brooks appropriately acknowledged the irony of this act, as he regaled the audience with the story of what inspired him to become a country music singer/entertainer, which just happened to include George Strait. After “the torch” was passed, George Strait showed us all why he so richly deserved the honor. He humbly thanked and praised the show’s participants for their contributions and for giving up their precious time to pay tribute to him. Then he sang “Ocean Front Property” and ended with “Troubadour” with the help of the entire cast of the show.
After a season of awards shows that have been disappointing at best, this tribute show was happily refreshing. Because they had great songs to work with from a man who can’t help but respected, the show was bound to be an easy success. Much like George Strait himself, the show was laid back without feeling stale. Everyone seemed genuinely honored to be there, even if some of their performances missed the mark here and there.
At times, I admittedly take George Strait for granted. I all too often forget what a huge fan of his I was in the nineties when I first entered the world of country music. Fortunately though, I spend more time in awe of his thirty year career and the grace with which he conducts himself. In “Troubadour” Strait concluded by singing, “I was a young troubadour, when I rode in on a song./And I’ll be an old troubadour when I’m gone“, which he followed by saying, “Not anytime soon, I hope.”
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.
The following article is by guest contributor and Country Universe commenter, Craig R.
My Start in Country Music
By Craig Ross
My memories only started collecting at age four. That year, 1969, my uncle was shot and seriously wounded in Vietnam. I had just started eating hamburgers for the first time. During the summer I saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon on my parent’s bedroom black and white television set. And I knew the entire lyrics to only two songs, which I sang over and over again: “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” by B.J Thomas and “King of the Road” by the great Roger Miller. But growing up in a Baltimore suburb in a middle class, college educated black American home placed me in a rare position. My cousins listened to Motown, R&B, and some pop. The adults listened mainly to jazz. My parents were open to all types of music, and the one I fell in love with was country music.
In 1969 they still called it country-western music. And at that point in time it seemed to be everywhere. On the radio they played Roger Miller, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, and Eddy Arnold on pop stations. On television country music was coming into its own. In 1969 alone we watched Hee-Haw, The Porter Waggoner Show, The Johnny Cash Show and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. The first time I ever saw the great Louis Armstrong was on Cash’s show.
And of course, every sitcom seemed to be about the country living in 1969: Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbillies and Mayberry RFD. It may have been the perfect time to fall for country music. At four I liked the finger snapping of “King of the Road”, the cowboy hats, and the pretty lady singers in their wigs and gowns on television. I wasn’t dreaming of being a bull rider, a farmer or honky- tonk singer. But music defines you in some way. And at forty-four I realize now that I was being converted to a sound that would anchor the rest of my life. Country spoke to me in way no other music of my youth did. The very nature of the raw storytelling was addictive. Truth undiluted, unfiltered, uncalculated – can be a drug like no other.