Chris Stapleton’s voice just blows me away. As Lee Ann Womack has recently observed, he sings like a real man. He takes Travis Tritt’s soulfulness to a whole new level. With incredible harmonies and terrific songs not limited to “Blue Side of the Mountain” and “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey”, this is a strong project that certainly stood out in 2008.
Jason Boland & The Stragglers, Comal County Blue
I love Boland’s folk-tinged country voice, which sings these memorable fiddle laden melodies to great affect. While the lyrics can be abstract at times, they still manage to feel meaningful. I’ve come to realize that what ultimately appeals to me about this album is the fact that it reminds me of good nineties country music, which is the era that drew me to this genre in the first place.
Darrell Scott, Modern Hymns
My admiration for Darrell Scott is unending. I, of course, love his voice, but I especially love his thoughtful songwriting. “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” just floors me every time I hear it. In this project, however, he chose to cover some of his favorite songs that he classifies as modern hymns. Unsurprisingly, these choices turn out to be as interesting as his own compositions, which simply confirms that his talent is inspired by tasteful writing equal to his own.
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
Admittedly, nothing about this album is warm or pretty. Johnson’s vocals are harsh and the songs are mostly darker than we’re accustomed to hearing in country music these days. Along with the outlaw tinged productions, these factors are the fundamental elements of this great album.
Peter Cooper, Mission Door
While the melodies on his first album, Mission Door, are enough to draw you in, it is Peter Cooper’s provocative and insightful lyrics which catch you by surprise on this folk infused, steel guitar laden album. Cooper either wrote or co-wrote ten out of the twelve tracks that explores such weighty topics as racism and poverty. He enlists the help of Nanci Griffith and Todd Snider, his two favorite singers, on the album’s stand out title track, along with recording his own mellower version of “Thin Wild Mercury”, which he co-wrote with Todd Snider for Snider’s The Devil You Know album.
The best and most powerful song on the album, however, is “715 (For Hank Aaron), a song that discusses the duality of Aaron being a revered baseball player and an oppressed black man. This grossly ignored album that sounds like a mix of Darrell Scott and Todd Snider, with lots of steel guitar thrown in for good measure, is one of the year’s most intriguing albums.
Here are my favorite singles of 2008. As Dan has done, I lifted the entries that I had already written from our collective list for this article.
#20: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, “Please Read The Letter”
The album from which this song comes seems like an unlikely collaboration. It, however, somehow works as one of the best albums of the decade and any song from it would make my top twenty singles list this year.
#19: Hank Williams III, “Six Pack of Beer”
Hank Williams III is known for relishing a rebel persona and this attitude is often reflected in his music.More often than not, his songs contain observations wrapped in harsh lyrics that cause me to wince, but his production and voice, which are both more comparable to Hank Sr. than Hank III’s father, still draws me to his music, nonetheless. This song, however, is simply pure ear candy. There’s nothing in it that makes me feel like I have to turn it down in mixed company as is the case with so many other Hank III songs. It’s nice sometimes.
#18: Jason Michael Carroll, “I Can Sleep When I’m Dead”
I’m not much of a Jason Michael Carroll fan, but there’s just something about this song that is infectious. The rapid and frenzied production matches its premise, “I can sleep when I’m dead.”
#17: Gary Allan, “Learning How To Bend”
As Dan has pointed out, these aren’t words that most men would say without feeling extremely awkward. The intriguing thing about Gary Allan is that he can get away with it without anyone unfairly questioning his masculinity. He sings this song with fine vocal execution and hits those falsetto notes with incredible ease.
#16: Carrie Underwood, “Just A Dream”
While I could live with a more understated melody that sounded less like it was written by Diane Warren, I can’t help recognize that Underwood’s performance is just right for this intense song. I can only imagine that it aptly captures both the hazy confusion and blunt pain that accompanies the sudden loss of a significant other. I know it’s how I would feel.
1. “In Color,” Jamey Johnson
2. “Waitin’ on a Woman,” Brad Paisley
3. “This Is Me You’re Talking To,” Trisha Yearwood
4. “She Left Me for Jesus,” Hayes Carll
5. “What I Cannot Change,” Leann Rimes
6. “Last Call,” Lee Ann Womack
7. “Anything Goes,” Randy Houser
8. “Dig Two Graves,” Randy Travis
9. “Please Read the Letter,” Alison Krauss & Robert Plant
10. “Fine Line,” Little Big Town
11. “Mockingbird,” Allison Moorer
12. “Crazy Arms,” Patty Loveless
13. “This Town Needs a Bar,” Jeremy McComb
14. “Just Got Started Loving You,” James Otto
15. “Takin’ off This Pain,” Ashton Shepherd
16. “Gold,” Emmylou Harris
17. “Every Other Weekend,” Reba McEntire & Skip Ewing
18. “You Look Good In My Shirt,” Keith Urban
19. “More Like Her,” Miranda Lambert
20. “Love Don’t Live Here,” Lady Antebellum
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.
Our top ten singles of the year represent the very best of what country music is and what country music can be. With a combination of rising stars and veteran artists, it’s clear that the genre has worthy guardians waiting in the wings, even as the current keepers of the flame show no signs of fading away.
Ashton Shepherd, “Takin’ Off This Pain”
I cheated a bit by throwing this one into the mix, since it was technically released last fall. But as it wasn’t on the site’s 2007 singles countdown and didn’t even peak until this past May, I’m going to take this opportunity to opine, quite simply, that this single paints the best kind of picture of everything contemporary country in the 2000’s can be. It’s not pure traditionalism, as some have suggested – there’s a lot more modern drive than old-school shuffle at work here – but few major-label artists this decade have updated the spirit of classic country more loyally or convincingly than Shepherd has with this debut. Even if you take away the whopping voice, you’ve got clear, focused storytelling with palpable personality and an unusually clever hook. Loretta Lynn is smiling to herself somewhere. – DM
James Otto, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”
James Otto has one of the most soulful voices in country music, comparable to Travis Tritt. In “Just Got Started Lovin’ You” he uses his vocal range to irresistible affect. While it’s often compared to Gary Allan’s “Nothin’ On But The Radio” and Josh Turner’s “Your Man”, this is a song that could have easily been delivered by Conway Twitty, as it’s in the grand tradition of steamy tracks like “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” and “I’d Love to Lay You Down.” - LW
Brad Paisley, “Waitin’ on a Woman”
Donn Sampson and Wynn Varble penned this moving piece, one centered around the (mostly correct) notion that the fairer sex exercises greater, ahem, patience than their male counterparts. A newlywed husband on a shopping trip with his young bride meets an elderly man at the local mall. Soon, he’s listening to the advice of the sage, one who sees the waiting as one of life’s sweet, simple pleasures. The corresponding video clip, featuring iconic television actor Andy Griffith, added gravitas to an already-compelling lyric that ponders mortality and the everlasting love in a healthy marriage. – BB
The music critics at USA Today have announced their favorite singles and albums from the last year. Brian Mansfield, the newspaper’s Nashville correspondent, named Jamey Johnson, Kathy Mattea and Taylor Swift on his ballot, with Mattea also garnering a mention from critic Ken Barnes.
Entertainment Weekly‘s Chris Willman has also weighed in with an all-genre albums list that included Lee Ann Womack and an underrated gem from Nashville resident Sheryl Crow. Leah Greenblatt also lists her album choices, along with a slate of the top ten singles (Ashton Shepherd’s “Sounds So Good” ranks No. 9) and the five worst singles (No.5 is Jason Aldean’s “She’s Country”).
In this era of rampant piracy and economic recession, things aren’t looking good for the music industry. We don’t post too often about the business side of the music business here, as we tend to keep the focus on the music. But the reality is that these numbers matter. If Little Big Town’s second Equity album had performed as well as the first, the label might still be in business.
It’s not all doom and gloom, as many artists go on to make their best music once they leave major labels. But this Christmas, you can guarantee that some artists and record executives will be bracing for the New Year, while others are embracing it.
Here’s a look at some totals for albums released in 2008, ranked by total sales (rounded to the nearest thousand):
Taylor Swift, Fearless – 1,519,000
Sugarland, Love on the Inside – 1,179,000
George Strait, Troubadour – 693,000
Alan Jackson, Good Time – 628,000
Toby Keith, 35 Biggest Hits – 530,000
Kenny Chesney, Lucky Old Sun – 479,000
Faith Hill, Joy to the World – 341,000
Lady Antebellum, Lady Antebellum – 337,000
James Otto, Sunset Man – 332,000
Rascal Flatts, Greatest Hits Volume 1 – 330,000
Darius Rucker, Learn to Live – 284,000
Julianne Hough, Julianne Hough – 260,000
Toby Keith, That Don’t Make Me a Bad Guy – 224,000
Jewel, Perfectly Clear – 203,000
Dierks Bentley, Greatest Hits: Every Mile a Memory - 195,000
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song – 183,000
Heidi Newfield, What Am I Waiting For – 162,000
Jessica Simpson, Do You Know – 153,000
Brad Paisley, Play – 137,000
Kellie Pickler, Kellie Pickler – 129,000
Montgomery Gentry, Back When I Knew it All – 127,000
Tim McGraw, Greatest Hits Vol. 3 – 127,000
Emmylou Harris, All I Intended to Be – 119,000
Zac Brown Band, Foundation – 118,000
Randy Travis, Around the Bend – 89,000
Ashton Shepherd, Sounds So Good - 84,000
Jimmy Wayne, Do You Believe Me Now – 81,000
Trace Adkins, X – 72,000
Billy Currington, Little Bit of Everything – 65,000
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
I fell in love with Broadway musicals at age 6 when my parents took me to see “Camelot”. It was a truly magical experience, and over the years I’ve often wondered if my early love of musicals contributed to my discovery of country music, as both rely on the emotional connection developed through story songs.
In recent years, a number of mainstream musical artists have ventured onto “The Great White Way.” Among them former American Idol contestants and pop stars. For the most part country music stars have stayed away, but Reba McEntire stands out as a noteworthy exception. In 2001, she starred in “Annie Get Your Gun” to great acclaim. Even as a mid-run replacement she was given a special Drama Desk award, among others. She also gave a memorable turn as Nellie Forbush in the Carnegie Hall production of “South Pacific” in 2006.
While I do believe the experience may be beneficial for some artists in learning how to interpret lyrics and connect with the audience, most country artists will likely never perform on Broadway. So mostly for fun, and out of appreciation and love for both genres, I cast some of today’s country artists in various Broadway roles:
Carrie Underwood as Cosette in “Les Miserables”
Kellie Pickler as Ado Annie Carnes in “Oklahoma”
Emily West as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret”
Julianne Hough as Glinda in “Wicked”
Toby Keith as Jud Fry in “Oklahoma”
Taylor Swift as Wendla Bergmann in “Spring Awakening”
John Rich as Harold Hill in “Music Man”
Ashton Shepherd as Jo March in “Little Women”
Keith Urban as Roger Davis in “Rent”
Brad Paisley as Seymour Krelborn in “Little Shop of Horrors”
Charles Kelley as Joe Gillis in “Sunset Boulevard”
Ashton Shepherd has entered the country music scene with a voice that holds nothing back. It’s loud and full while possessing an uninhibited twang that is fairly uncommon in today’s mainstream market. When people hear Shepherd sing, they may be surprised to learn that such a mature sounding voice is coming from a mere 21-year- old. Moreover, when they hear her songs, it believably sounds as though she has lived a life well beyond her actual years.
The opening lines to her debut album, Sounds So Good, immediately inform us that we’re not in for the typical commercial country music fare. Instead, we’re about to hear an album with fresh and clever grit. With unabashed twang, she sings: “I’ve got a cold beer in my right hand/In my left I got my weddin’ band/I been wearin’ it ’round now for way too long/And I’m more than ready to see it gone/And I’m the only one who can set myself free/So I’m takin’ off this pain you put on me.”
In songs like “I Ain’t Dead Yet” and “Not Right Now”, she addresses the guilt that women commonly feel as a result of the societal expectations that are placed upon them. “I Ain’t Dead Yet” insists that while she embraces being a mother and wife, there is more to her than those roles: “I like a cold beer and a long dirt road/And listenin’ to some Keith Whitley on the radio/Don’t mean I ain’t a good mama/Don’t mean I ain’t a good wife/I’m just like everybody else who needs a break from time to time/And I know my obligations/And believe me, they are met/I may be getting’ older, but I ain’t dead yet.” Likewise, “Not Right Now” acknowledges that she likes to drink and party, despite what people expect of her as a woman: “I ain’t supposed to want to do a lot of drinkin’/Least that’s what a lot of folks keep thinkin’/I ain’t supposed to stay out ‘til all hours in the mornin’/I’m supposed to be a young lady.”
“The Pickin Shed”, “The Bigger the Heart” and “Sounds So Good” are more lighthearted songs that, much like so many of the other songs on the album, embrace a traditional sound that compliments Shepherd’s voice very well.
While the album is replete with very good material, “How Big Are Angel Wings” and “Regular Joe” are a couple of songs that stand out as unoriginal and fall into the trap of the generic format that often befalls Nashville these days. Even those songs, however, captures a sincerity that Shepherd so naturally conveys with her honest delivery.
Sounds So Good is a solid debut effort from an artist who will hopefully continue to make an impression on country radio and its listeners. Her strong voice, intriguing songwriting and traditional leaning should be afresh and welcome addition to country music.