Traditional Country is a Link in a Long Chain

June 30, 2009 // 23 Comments

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 before 1990? Maybe, but that is still a rather wide 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?

Montgomery Gentry, “Long Line of Losers”

June 10, 2009 // 11 Comments

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.

George Strait Honored As Artist of the Decade

May 28, 2009 // 43 Comments

There is really no new way to pontificate about 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.

Perfect 10

April 29, 2009 // 43 Comments

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 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.

My Start in Country Music

March 2, 2009 // 11 Comments

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 Read More

I am not ashamed.

February 28, 2009 // 46 Comments

“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 Read More

Randy Owen, One on One

November 4, 2008 // 0 Comments

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 Read More

Discussion: Artist of the Decade?

October 30, 2008 // 34 Comments

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 Read More

Randy Owen, “Like I Never Broke Her Heart”

June 30, 2008 // 12 Comments

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

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

September 2, 2007 // 1 Comment

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 Read More

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