Tag Archives: Alabama

My Start in Country Music

The following article is by guest contributor and Country Universe commenter, Craig R.

My Start in Country Musicroger-miller
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 ShowThe 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.

Continue reading


Filed under Guest Commentary, Miscellaneous Musings

I am not ashamed.

“Pride attaches undue importance to the superiority of one’s status in the eyes of others; And shame is fear of humiliation at one’s inferior status in the estimation of others. When one sets his heart on being highly esteemed, and achieves such rating, then he is automatically involved in fear of losing his status.”

- Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher


This week’s iPod challenge requires you to check your shame at the door. Too often, there is embarrassment associated with our favorite music. We worry about the cool factor.

When I started Country Universe, I was determined to write honestly about what I like and dislike, regardless of how it might affect my credibility in the eyes of others. But I often keep mum about the guiltiest of my guilty pleasures.

So with this iPod check, I’m hitting shuffle and listing the first twenty songs that I’d normally be too embarrassed to share. Just to keep it fully honest, I’m using my “Favorites” playlist, the 3,000 or so songs that I truly enjoy, so you know these aren’t songs that I like. They’re songs that I love:

  1. Kellie Pickler, “Best Days of Your Life”
  2. Grease 2, “Back to School Again”
  3. Mr. Mister, “Broken Wings”
  4. N*SYNC, “Pop”
  5. Paula Cole, “I Don’t Want to Wait”
  6. Alabama, “Love in the First Degree”
  7. Guns ‘n Roses, “November Rain”
  8. Blondie, “Rapture”
  9. Billy Ray Cyrus, “In the Heart of a Woman”
  10. Neil Diamond, “Yesterday’s Songs”
  11. Sinead O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U”
  12. Doug Stone, “Little Houses”
  13. Trick Daddy, “Nann…”
  14. They Might Be Giants, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”
  15. Dexy’s Midnight Runners, “Come On Eileen”
  16. TLC, “No Scrubs”
  17. Arrested Development, “Tennessee” (A game of horseshoes!)
  18. Michael Bolton, “How Can We Be Lovers”
  19. Olivia Newton-John, “Have You Never Been Mellow”
  20. Shakespear’s Sister, “I Don’t Care”

Cast off your shame and share your own list in the comments!


Filed under Discussion, iPod Check

Randy Owen, One on One

Randy Owen
One on One


As the lead singer of Alabama, Randy Owen guided the quartet with his rugged, yet appealing vocal style.  With the band retired from the road, Owen steps into the spotlight alone with his solo project, One on One. An elder statesman in contemporary country music, Owen is now embracing the challenge of courting to a youthful audience while still maintaining the signature style that defined his three decades as a hitmaker. Here, he’s far removed from his heyday as Alabama’s frontman, and the blue-collar rockers that defined the group’s Hall of Fame career are eschewed in favor of laidback grooves that fit well with Owen’s quietly soulful interpretations. Behind the boards for the album is conspicuous co-producer John Rich, recruited to command Owen’s comeback to the mainstream scene. The pair’s production choices swing from wonderfully subtle to poorly mismanaged, and those fluctuations in song sense make One on One a mixed bag of slow, seductive rhythms that rise and fall with the material they inhabit.

Continue reading

Comments Off

Filed under Album Reviews

Discussion: Artist of the Decade?

Earlier today, the Academy of Country Music announced that George Strait would be its Artist of the Decade. Only four other acts have been honored as artist of the decade: Marty Robbins in 1969, Loretta Lynn in 1979, Alabama in 1988 and Garth Brooks in 1998. The annual ACM Awards show is scheduled for Sunday, April 5, with Reba McEntire hosting for the 11th time.

Long live King George, of course, whose popularity has now encompassed three decades. His consistent chart success and critically-acclaimed work satisfies Strait’s more mature fans while also capturing the attention of the genre’s newer audience. I have a hard time arguing with the choice of Strait, although I would lean towards Alan Jackson instead. The highlights in Jackson’s decade include a number of contemporary classics (“Where Were You,” “Drive,” “Remember When,” “Monday Morning Church,” “Small Town Southern Man”), a trophy cabinet full of awards (nine CMA awards, seven ACM awards and a Grammy), a popular touring schedule and even detours into gospel (Precious Memories and sophisticated country-pop (Like Red on a Rose). Meanwhile, he stands as the ambassador for what many feel that country music is and should be.

Who is your artist of the decade and why?


Filed under Discussion

Randy Owen, “Like I Never Broke Her Heart”

Randy Owen, former lead singer of Alabama, is trying to make his way back onto country radio as a solo artist. Unfortunately, “Like I Never Broke Her Heart” lacks distinction both in lyrics and production.

Owen sings from the perspective of a man who notices that his former lover is very happy with a new man. Despite the fact that he, apparently, treated her horribly, he observes with regret: “She loves you like I never broke her heart…I wonder where I went when I went too far.”

This generic storyline is accompanied by an equally uninspiring production by John Rich, which showcases unnecessary electric guitar solos and an annoying background vocal track that repeats Owen’s second to last line in each chorus.

Written by Mitzi Dawn, J. T. Harding and Shannon Lawson

Grade: C

Listen: Like I Never Broke Her Heart


Filed under Single Reviews

Album Reviews: 16 Biggest Hits (Alabama, Diamond Rio, Alan Jackson, Patty Loveless, Dolly Parton)

Since their merger a couple of years back, Sony BMG has been combining their budget title lines.   Originating with Sony, the 16 Biggest Hits series has been intended to provide a good career overview of major country acts.    With six more tracks than the Super Hits series, it’s been a good way for consumers to pick up the big tracks by legendary Sony artists like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Tammy Wynette, and also provided excellent hits compilations for boom years acts like Ricky Van Shelton, Joe Diffie and Collin Raye.

The line has recently been expanded to include some core BMG acts, both legends and superstars still with the label.    Also, with the departure of Patty Loveless from Sony, the first attempt to do a compilation of her fruitful years with the label has been released.

When grading a compilation, the following criteria must be considered: selection of tracks, value for the price, and how it compares to other compilations already on the market.   Here’s a look at how the recent 16 Biggest Hits releases measure up:

16 Biggest Hits


Track Listing: Mountain Music/Song of the South/Love in the First Degree/If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)/Born Country/Feels So Right/The Closer You Get/She and I/Fallin’ Again/Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler)/Jukebox in My Mind/Down Home/I’m in a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)/Can’t Keep a Good Man Down/Southern Star/High Cotton

The endless string of recent Alabama compilations makes this particular entry a little less necessary.   The track selection treads much of the same ground as the 2004 release Ultimate Alabama, with that collection boasting four more tracks, including the essential hits “Forty Hour Week (For a Livin’)” and “Tennessee River.”   The big problem with cataloging Alabama using the “hits” standard is that it ends up excluding their signature track “My Home’s in Alabama”, which wasn’t a huge chart hit but remains one of their most beloved songs.    If those three tracks had been used in place of some of the lesser-quality hits here, you’d have a collection that was a lot closer to indispensable.  As it is, this one is still a good value, but it isn’t the definitive single-disc set that the band deserves.

Diamond Rio
16 Biggest Hits


Track Listing: How Your Love Makes Me Feel/Walkin’ Away/Holdin’/Meet in the Middle/Unbelievable/Beautiful Mess/One More Day/Love a Little Stronger/Oh Me, Oh My, Sweet Baby/Mirror Mirror/You’re Gone/Nowhere Bound/Norma Jean Riley/In a Week or Two/This Romeo Ain’t Got Julie Yet

One of the tricky things about a series like this is it imposes a framework that each artist must fit into.  That would be great if every artist had exactly 16 big hits, but that’s rarely the case.   Diamond Rio, however, had just the right amount of success to be anthologized this way, with the only major omission here being “Mama Don’t Forget to Pray For Me.”  I’d also have liked them to stick with the chronological approach that used to define this series, but these are minor quibbles.  This is instantly the most complete Diamond Rio collection on the market.

Alan Jackson
16 Biggest Hits


Track Listing: Chattahoochee/Gone Country/It Must Be Love/Midnight in Montgomery/Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow/Don’t Rock the Jukebox/Mercury Blues/Here in the Real World/Pop a Top/That’d Be Alright/I Don’t Even Know Your Name/Gone Crazy/I’ll Go On Loving You/Little Man/Who’s Cheatin’ Who/Summertime Blues

It’s a tough call to make, given that every track here ranges from very good to legendary, but Alan Jackson already has two excellent Greatest Hits collections on the market, with a stunning 20-track first volume that covers his early career and a second volume with another 18 hits.    Sure, this is the first compilation that covers both eras, but it doesn’t do it particularly well.   Five of these sixteen songs are covers, which is far too many for a collection by one of the genre’s best singer-songwriters.   And they didn’t have the courage to really include all of the biggest hits:  “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”, “Drive (For Daddy Gene)”, “Livin’ on Love”, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” and “Remember When” would be needed for this live up to its title.

Patty Loveless
16 Biggest Hits


Track Listing: Timber I’m Falling In Love/Chains/Blame it On Your Heart/You Will/How Can I Help You Say Goodbye/I Try to Think About Elvis/Here I Am/You Don’t Even Know Who I Am/Halfway Down/You Can Feel Bad/A Thousand Times a Day/Lonely Too Long/She Drew a Broken Heart/You Don’t Seem to Miss Me/That’s The Kind of Mood I’m In/Lovin’ All Night

It’s disappointing that MCA’s Definitive Collection for Patty Loveless is more thorough, given that it was her years with Sony that have made her a serious contender for the Hall of Fame.  Sony was nice enough to give MCA “You Can Feel Bad” and “Lonely Too Long” to tack on to their Loveless collection, which ended up with 22 tracks.   MCA returned the favor by allowing “Timber I’m Falling In Love” and “Chains” to be used on this collection, but that’s a net loss for two reasons: one, Tony Brown’s dated eighties production sounds out of place next to Emory Gordy’s flawless work with Loveless in the nineties; and two, that leaves room for only fourteen more tracks from the Sony years.

That said, this is now the most complete overview of her years with the label, and it includes six hits that were left off of Classics, her first hits compilation with Sony.  However, because of the MCA tracks being squeezed on, there’s no room for “Nothin’ But the Wheel”, “On Your Way Home”, “My Kind of Woman/My Kind of Man”, “To Have You Back Again”, “The Boys are Back in Town” or “The Last Thing on My Mind”, any two of which would’ve made this a better collection.   Actually, picking three and leaving off the mediocre “You Will” would’ve been even better!  Here’s hoping Loveless get the two-disc Essential collection that her years at Sony warrants.

Dolly Parton
16 Biggest Hits


Track Listing: Here You Come Again/9 to 5/Jolene/Islands in the Stream/I Will Always Love You/Coat of Many Colors/The Seeker/Two Doors Down/Single Women/All I Can Do/Heartbreak Express/Don’t Call it Love/Love is Like a Butterfly/Rockin’ Years/Why’d You Come In Here Lookin’ Like That/Romeo

Like the Alabama and Alan Jackson collections, this gives enough of the big hits to look like it’s going to be definitive, but then decides to go for the filler instead of finishing the job.  This could have been a perennial catalog smash for Sony BMG like the Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings entries are, but they decided to go cheap in the end.  This starts off with one huge hit after another, and then…”Heartbreak Express”?  “Don’t Call it Love”?  “Romeo”????   Are you kidding me?

I actually love “Single Women”, an often-overlooked gem, but most of the rest of this collection will leave even a casual fan wondering what happened to the hits.   I give them credit for using the definitive 1974 version of “I Will Always Love You”, but in the end, consumers have much better options to get their Dolly fix, even on a tight budget.

If you’re a casual fan wanting a career overview, you can get the 20-track Ultimate Dolly Parton from iTunes for only $8.91, less than they’re charging for this set.   But if you’re serious about getting the very best of this legendary artist, the way to go is the two single-disc, 20-track  Essential Dolly Parton collections released by RCA in the mid-nineties, which are $9.99 each at iTunes.   Not to be confused with the double CD that was released last year, these two collections are the only significant collections of her RCA years (until they finally do a real box set.)  Strangely, Vol. 1 covers the eighties crossover era, while it’s Vol. 2 that delves into her far more significant traditional country work in the 60’s and 70’s.    Buy the second volume first!

1 Comment

Filed under Album Reviews

Top Twelve Songs about America

We’ve been a bit overwhelmed in country music with patriotic songs since 9/11, and many of them have the stench of expolitation, poor taste, or just plain bad songwriting. In my opinion, the best songs about America tell about Americans, and their experiences. Some of the songs on this list do that; others do talk about America as a whole, but not in your typical flag-waving style. I think they all give Lee Greenwood a run for his money. Here are my 12 favorite songs about America:

12. Sawyer Brown, “Café On The Corner”

The story of 50-year old man who has lost his farm, and is now cleaning tables and washing dishes at a small-town café. The darker side of the American dream, this was released just when the homeless were looking more and more like us. What if you want to work but you can’t find the work? Bashers of welfare and other social safety net programs would do well to listen.

11. Alabama, “Song of the South”

A loving and sentimental celebration of the Depression-era and New Deal south (“We all picked the cotton but we didn’t get rich”) It tells the story of a family that moves from a farm into town, taking advantage of the new federal programs that helped the south so much. It’s ironic that there is such anti-Washington sentiment across the south, since the federal government invested so much to modernize that region and southern states still receive the highest amount of federal aid and benefits, much higher than all other regions of the country.

10. Kathy Mattea, “Beautiful Fool”

A poignant tribute to Martin Luther King that acknowledges the sacrifice he made and the legacy of non-violence that he did not invent, but rather continued: “Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus Christ, history repeats itself so nice, consistently we are resistant to love.”

9. Todd Snider, “This Land Is Our Land”

Is this what those crazy liberals are teaching are kids about America? Pretty much. Snider twists the title of a classic folk song to speak in the voice of America’s pioneers – our earliest capitalists. His history is actually pretty accurate – the take-over of land from the Native Americans was not fueled by racism or a concept of manifest destiny – there was just a lot of money to be made. One line: “There’s a lot of land but we need it all, for slave trade and shopping malls.” The narrator makes the “it’s just business” case in a matter-of-fact tone that suggests “hey, we might as well take the land, they’re not getting any real use out of it.” Smart references to contemporary wonders ranging from paper plates and diet pills to pesticides and oil spills, and suggests that even though the land has long been ours, we’re still finding new ways to waste and abuse its resources.

8. Dixie Chicks, “Travelin’ Soldier”

Many suggest that the reason the popularity for our current war is dwindling is that more and more people know somebody who has died, been injured or is currently in danger in Iraq. The most revealing part of this hit is the indifference of the football crowd: “One name read, and nobody really cared, but a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair.” It’s easy to be unmoved by the casualties of American soldiers, and Iraqis for that matter, if there’s no personal connection. Perhaps the biggest service of this song is to put a name and face on every soldier through telling us the story of one.

7. Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Stones In The Road”

Chapin traces how the children who witnessed the cultural revolution grew up and apparently didn’t learn the right lessons. A rebuke of the concept of success that makes people “climb that ladder rung by rung.” She suggests, however, that deep down, we know this is wrong, as evidenced by our encounters with the homeless – “we give a dollar when we pass, and hope our eyes don’t meet.” She wants Americans who lived through those changes to listen to that voice of conscience today and make a difference, but the cynicism of adulthood makes her think it isn’t going to happen.

6. Garth Brooks, “We Shall Be Free”

In a hopefulness that is quintessentially American, Brooks suggests that once we fully embrace the concept of equal rights in America, we will truly be a free nation, and celebrates this as a goal to work towards. A bit controversial back in 1992 for the line “when we’re free to love anyone we choose,” and implicit endorsement of gay rights, he seems to instinctively understand that institutionalized fear of different races, religions and lifestyles restricts the freedom of all of us. He sees the beauty that the framework already exists for America to be the beacon of freedom for the entire world. All we need is the courage and the leadership.

5. Alan Jackson, “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)”

This song captures how Americans across the country all became united for at least a day or two, and how strong the emotional impact of the devastation in New York and Washington was on all Americans. Jackson takes us on a cross-country tour of how Americans from all walks of life responded to the tragedy. Often overlooked is his subtle call for more love in the world as a response to the events. I don’t think anybody’s ever asked him what he means by emphasizing the greatest gift God gave us was love in the chorus, but it suggests that Toby Keith is quite wrong when he says that “everybody” wanted to put a boot in someone’s ass in reponse; we may have been angry Americans, but bloodthirsty is not as universal an emotion as he thinks.

4. Merle Haggard, “Okie From Muskogee”

A classic counter-counterculture hit, this song captures the mid-western resistance to the major social upheavals on the coasts. Characterized as more angry than it really is, Haggard seems to make the point that change is simply unnecessary in Muskogee, where “football is the roughest thing on campus” and “we don’t smoke marijuana” – rather, their illegal drug of choice comes in a jug of White Lightning. Realistically, there probably were many people in Oklahoma smoking pot and “making a party out of lovin’”, but Haggard speaks in the voice of the town, where even if these things do go on behind closed doors, they will not define Muskogee, like the city of San Francisco was defined by the draft-card burning hippie scene.
Certainly, there were people in San Francisco who wished it was more like a small town in Oklahoma, much like many Okies rolled their eyes at Haggard’s white-washed portrait of their towns. The media insistance of diving America into red state vs. blue state is not a new phenomenon, but the way Haggard’s song resonated with Americans from all over proved the dividing lines in America are social and political, not geographical.

3. Johnny Cash, “What Is Truth?”

If Haggard is the dad that doesn’t understand why all the kids are going wild, Cash is the younger uncle who sticks up for them at the dinner table. Cash gives voice to all the frustrations of a generation being sent off to die for a war that isn’t just, and being called cowards by the previous generation who suffered great losses in a war that was very just and necessary. The generation gap is more like a chasm, but Cash tries to bridge it. The most powerful verse captures this struggle:

A boy of three sitting on the floor,
looks up and says, “Daddy, what is war?”
“Why that’s where people fight and die.”
A little boy of three says, “Daddy, why?”

Young man of seventeen in Sunday School
Being taught the Golden Rule
And by the time another year’s gone around
It may be his turn to lay his life down

Can you blame the voice of youth
for asking, “What is truth?”

2. Waylon Jennings, “America”

Forget “God Bless The U.S.A.” This is the 80’s country hit that is the best celebration of America. “I come from down around Tennessee, but the people from California are nice to me; it don’t matter where I may roam, tell your people it’s home sweet home.” He celebrates all of America, his brothers “are all black and white and yellow too.” Who else would have the courage and understanding to celebrate both the soldiers and the draft dodgers in the same verse?

1. Iris Dement, “Wasteland of the Free”

Eerily prescient, this was written in 1995. Every listen gives me chills. Everything that is bringing America down – the corruption of religion by politicians, corporate greed, rampant ignorance, new McCarthyism and war for profit – is exposed in a brilliantly crafted tirade that is overflowing with righteous anger, enough to make you think that if Dement visited the White House, she’d be overturning some tables. Full lyrics here.


Filed under Features