, I realized that, perhaps, the most important aspect to creating a themed play list was the ability to find some obscure songs to include with all those well-known classics. While Merle Travis’s “Dark as a Dungeon” as performed at Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash and Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” as performed by Patty Loveless are two of my personal favorite coal miner songs—they are already in heavy rotation on several of my play lists and are drawn from albums I listen to regularly.
Ashley Monroe’s “Canary,” which can be unearthed on This is My America Volume 2, is the kind of hidden gem that often can be missed even by those paying close attention to the movements of country music. Similar in tone to classic coal mining songs but delivered with modern sensibilities “Canary” most closely resembles what I wish “radio friendly” country sounded like—it isn’t traditional but it feels like country music. Plus, it fits well between my more traditional favorites, providing some variety for myself and perhaps a surprise to anyone listening along.
Recommendation: Ashley Monroe’s “Canary,” from This is My America Volume 2.
What hidden gems covering traditional country music subject matter (murder, drinking, ect.) would you recommend? Alternatively, what coal mining songs would you recommend?
Let’s do this, y’all. You’ll recognize some of these write-ups from our collective list, but others weren’t posted there or were cut down for that list. This is my “Director’s Cut” version, you might say – or maybe the “UNRATED!!” version, depending on your taste in films.
In any case, here are my favorite 20 things designated as country music singles in 2008 (that I picked up on, anyhoo):
Elizabeth Cook, “Sunday Morning”
Cook mines an abstract Velvet Underground song and halfway convinces you it was always meant to be a quiet country reflection. The production and vocal are a bit too buoyant to fully convey the song’s weariness, but they do flesh out its gentle message of hope, and that’s not too bad, either.
Hank Williams III, “Six Pack of Beer”
Silly and shallow it may be, but III’s turbo-campy lament of hard times + booze was also this year’s sweetest piece of hillbilly ear candy. I think it sounds like the fastest, most frivolous thing Johnny Cash never recorded, but maybe that’s just me.
James Otto, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”
What’s this? A contemporary country single with a traditional structure that skips on big choruses? A distinctive voice at the helm? Oh? It was the most played song of the year? Huh. So country music fans want to hear unique-sounding singers singing some semblance of actual country music on the radio? How perplexing.
In all seriousness, this smash really is a fine example of feel-good radio fluff that still manages to sound human. It’s impossible to evaluate honestly without the requisite (and very valid) comparison to Josh Turner’s “Your Man,” but honestly, I think Otto out-sexed his predecessor by a good margin. Turner gave a fine performance with his standard sweetness, but Otto opted for randy, slightly jagged cooing that ultimately sounds much more convincing coming from a man in this particular situation.
Joey + Rory, “Cheater, Cheater”
My soft spot for frivolity shows itself again. This tell-off ditty has a cute bite, and its malicious irrationality is delivered with a knowing wink that has been regrettably absent in many recent, like-minded harangues (cough cough, “Picture to Burn”). Still, it’s the frenetic bluegrass production and the couple’s palpable chemistry that ultimately sell the thing.
I’m always game for more regret on country radio, particularly when you’ve got two of the best singers in the biz on the job. The only thing holding it back for me is the melody, which is a bit too “Peabo Bryson goes country” for my taste.
Sugarland, Little Big Town & Jake Owen, “Life in a Northern Town”
There is a certain kind of song whose impact simply defies logical explanation, which seems to tap something so primal in the human spirit that you don’t even want to try explaining it for fear you might belittle it somehow. You couldn’t ask for a better example of that phenomenon than this cover of Dream Academy’s surreal ode to singer-songwriter Nick Drake, which resolves into a chorus of tribal “hey ma ma ma ma”s that somehow manage to say more (to me) than most actual words ever do.
It’s much more “Lion King soundtrack” than “country,” of course, but the union of all of these unique individual voices evokes the sort of grand communal warmth that you can normally only find in church or around a campfire. Personal favorite moment: Jake Owen’s solo, which he sings with such silky ease that it makes you pissed he hasn’t found better material for himself yet.
The list continues today with the next ten entries, a collection of hits, could’ve been hits and should’ve been hits. Adventurous radio programmers, take note.
Little Big Town, “Fine Line”
There’s a fine line between imitation and tribute, and Little Big Town lands on the proper side of the balance. Karen Fairchild steps forward on this flashback to ’70s SoCal country-rock, and her biting, expressive performance matches perfectly with an admonishment of a distant lover. Very fine, indeed. – BB
This ridiculous but fun single just sounds like a Willie Nelson song. While it’s a 2008 single, it sounds as though it could have been recorded at the height of Nelson’s career. Moreover, Willie’s voice sounds as strong as ever here. – LW
The Raconteurs with Ricky Skaggs & Ashley Monroe, “Old Enough”
A thrilling, organic collaboration that sounds cooler and more convincing with each listen. It probably hasn’t gotten enough exposure to be remembered several years down the line, but it’s one of 2008′s most compelling arguments for the uncanning of country music. – DM
Eddy Arnold, “To Life”
A glorious swan song from an incomparable talent. When it charted shortly after his death, Arnold became the only artist in history to hit the country singles chart in seven different decades. – KJC
Country crossovers have been getting a really bad rep recently. The tension is nothing new, of course – only the late John Denver could claim to have his name set aflame on a CMA telecast – but between three seasons of Gone Country, the recent glut of pop veterans snatching up major Nashville record deals, and many of the genre’s mainstream acts themselves sounding more ‘Hanson’ than ‘Haggard,’ genre-hopping has practically become the new norm. The resulting cynicism of critics and fans alike is a real shame, but given the climate, you can hardly blame a country lover for forgetting that artists from other realms sometimes manage to dabble in Ye Olde Twang with reverence and ingenuity instead of commercial cunning, that such outings occasionally produce solid gold over mere dollars.
But make no mistake here: Jack White is not Jessica Simpson, and The Raconteurs are not Bon Jovi. Best-known as one half of enigmatic alternative duo The White Stripes, White has racked up country points in recent years by producing and guesting on one of the decade’s most acclaimed albums (Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose), offering sincere praise of the Nashville community he currently calls home, and even reportedly contributing to an upcoming album of lost Hank Williams songs also featuring Alan Jackson and Lucinda Williams and spearheaded by none other than Bob Dylan. A critic’s darling thanks to a string of excellent blues-grinding Stripes albums, he began work with The Raconteurs in 2005 and now finds their second offering, Consolers Of The Lonely, nominated for Best Rock Album at the forthcoming Grammy Awards. However you cut it, this is a man who knows his country, knows his rock, and isn’t going to be stupid about the way he blends them.
And so perhaps it should not surprise that The Raconteurs would choose to recolor their folky current single as a bluegrass-inflected number, or that they would pick collaborators for the project from the absolute cream of the crop. And yet, when you really think about the fact that a high-profile rock band has decided, just for fun’s sake, to share their spotlight with Ricky Skaggs – a legend whose legacy speaks for itself – and Ashley Monroe – a uniquely talented young singer-songwriter whose highly promising debut, Satisfied, got the Sony shaft back in 2006 – you can’t help but grin. On paper, this is the kind of effort that defines “critic bait”: cool artists collaborating with other cool artists on a cool song simply because it’s a cool thing to do.
That’s quite an accomplishment itself, but thankfully, the single’s appeal is pretty well substantiated by the music itself. “Old Enough” is a decent song on its own, with a straightforward, confrontational lyric that disparages the plucky confidence of youth, but the real pleasures of this record come from the new twists: Monroe’s harmonic chemistry with singer Brendan Benson, the sweet fiddle part getting more room to breathe thanks to a less crunchy arrangement, the oddly appropriate inclusion of a certain Everly Brothers line, the acoustic fury of the song’s coda. There’s a sense of vital, organic creation pulsating throughout this recording that manages to keep you interested even when the holes in the song and performances appear.
And there are holes, to be sure: some of the instrumentals toward the end sound tossed off, the arrangement is not necessarily the most cohesive, the lyric still falls on the uncaptivating side of minimalism that requires listeners to fill in a lot of blanks themselves. These problems somewhat mar the record’s attempts to convey a serious theme, limiting its appeal to “music for music’s sake”; it’s sort of the difference between campfire singing that means something and campfire singing “just because.” But for whatever the latter is worth, it’s hard to argue too much with how The Raconteurs and Co. have done it here: beautiful singing, mostly beautiful playing, uncompromising creativity. It’s enough to make a mainstream country fan pretty dang jealous.