It’s an old saying that Ray Benson most certainly would agree with: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
Asleep at the Wheel has undergone many lineup changes since it was formed in 1970 by Benson, Lucky Oceans, and Leroy Preston. They were joined shortly thereafter by Chris O’Connell, a female singer. They started out as a country band, but their sound was forever changed by Merle Haggard’s tribute album to Bob Wills. Since hearing that seminal album, they’ve been devoted to both the preservation and development of Western Swing.
Their debut album was released in 1973 by United Artists, but the band laid down roots in 1974 when they moved to Austin, Texas. They recorded for a variety of major labels in the seventies and eighties, and had significant commercial success with four albums for Capitol. The band became widely known for their outstanding live performances, and scored a few hits at country radio, too.
Early on in the band’s run, the lineup began to change, which has become a trademark of the band that has aided its incredible longevity. The one constant has always been frontman Ray Benson, who has kept the band relevant through bringing in new talent regularly and through creative collaborations with other artists. They’ve won a remarkable eight Grammy awards, including six for Best Country Instrumental Performance.
Their commitment to preserving the legacy of Bob Wills resulted in two widely hailed and warmly embraced tribute albums: 1993′s A Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and 1999′s Ride with Bob. The former earned a CMA nomination for Album of the Year, and the latter brought the band back to the country singles chart, thanks to unsolicited airplay for “Roly Poly”, a duet with the Dixie Chicks.
To celebrate Wills’ centennial, Benson starred in a touring musical called A Ride with Bob, where he played himself touring the life of Wills as his band plays along. The show received rave reviews, and one show was even attended by President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.
In 2009, almost three decades after the band first formed, they had the highest-charting album of their career with Willie and the Wheel, a collaboration with fellow Austin icon Willie Nelson.
Choo Choo Ch’Boogie, 1973
The Letter that Johnny Walker Read, 1975
Route 66, 1976
House of Blue Lights, 1987
Red Wing, 1993
Comin’ Right at Ya, 1973
Texas Gold, 1975
Asleep at the Wheel, 1985
A Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, 1993
Cyrus released “Achy Breaky Heart” when I was seven years old, and I fell for it. The upside? My mom bought me his Some Gave All cassette tape, and I fell in love with “She’s Not Cryin’ Anymore.” It was the first song in my life to grip me with emotion, which would later come to define my bond with music.
I know that it was either this or “Physical”, but I’m pretty sure it was this one because I have foggy memories of this being turned up for my amusement in the car when I was a small child. This is what happens when you’re a child of the eighties.
Dan Milliken: “Keep on Dancing” – The Gentrys
This is just my best guess. My dad used to crank this oldie in our living room and literally swing me and my little sister around in the air to it when we were young. I sometimes wonder if my preference for uptempo material (regardless of actual emotional tone) was established right there.
I don’t have a particular song in mind, but when I think about it, I realize that the first music that I remember really liking was from Raffi, a children’s’ singer. There was a particular cassette that I was obsessed with (recorded by my dad from the TV), which was a recording of a concert that aired on the Disney channel and subsequently released on CD a few years later.
As an adult when I revisited the album, along with Raffi’s Christmas album, I realized that the instrumentation closely resembled the sounds of country music. In fact, the country music community released a tribute to Raffi, which includes adorable recordings by the likes of Keith Urban, Marty Stuart, Kathy Mattea, Lee Roy Parnell, Lari White, Elizabeth Cook, Eric Heatherly, Alison Krauss and Asleep at the Wheel, among others.
My favorite track from the tribute is Raul Malo’s version of “Thanks A Lot” (not the Ernest Tubb song). Although I didn’t fall in love with country until I was a young adolescent, as I see it, loving Raffi music proves that I was wired to naturally love country music, even as a young child.
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.
Even in Grammy’s darkest hours, CU brings its picking powers!
- Superhero television show about our blog from the 50′s.
We won’t be live-blogging this time around, but will be reacting to the show in a full post tomorrow, and welcome your reactions in comments on this post. The awards telecast starts at 8 pm Eastern, and I imagine there will be some red carpet action in the hour prior.
Record of the Year
Beyonce, “Halo” – Kevin
Black Eyed Peas, “I Gotta Feeling”
Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody” - Tara
Lady GaGa, “Poker Face” - Dan
Taylor Swift, “You Belong with Me”
Black Eyed Peas, “I Gotta Feeling”
Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody” – Kevin, Dan, Tara
Lady GaGa, “Poker Face”
Taylor Swift, “You Belong with Me”
Kevin: Am I wrong for preferring Eric Cartman’s rendition of “Poker Face” over the original? This is a pretty lightweight slate of contenders. I really like “Halo”, but I suspect Kings of Leon will win, simply because it’s the only rock song in a lineup of pop hits.
Dan: “Poker Face” just feels very representative of popular music in 2009. I wouldn’t whine if it got passed over so that “Bad Romance” could take this award next year, though.
Tara: I would’ve pulled for “Single Ladies” in a heartbeat had it been submitted, but “Use Somebody” is just as deserving of this award. It’s a fantastic song even outside the context of its moment in pop culture, and it’s the kind of larger-than-life song that the voters have picked to win in the past.
Album of the Year
Beyonce, I Am…Sasha Fierce
Black Eyed Peas, The E.N.D.
Lady GaGa, The Fame – Kevin, Tara
Dave Matthews Band, Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King
Taylor Swift, Fearless - Dan
Beyonce, I Am…Sasha Fierce
Black Eyed Peas, The E.N.D.
Lady GaGa, The Fame
Dave Matthews Band, Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King - Kevin
Taylor Swift, Fearless - Dan, Tara
Kevin: I’d like to see dance music get some respect in the big category, even if there are a half-dozen Madonna albums at this point that would’ve been worthier winners than The Fame. Again, I think the Top 40 votes are going to be split, leaving Dave Matthews Band the winners.
Dan: In little over a year, Fearless has grown from success story to cultural artifact. It’s that rare pop album that seems to have a personality all its own, like Jagged Little Pill in a yellow sundress (and sung about as well). I could see anyone but the Peas taking this, but I think Swift’s support in both Nashville and the Top 40 crowd will take her to the top.
Tara: I have to say I was fairly shocked to see Swift’s truckload of Grammy nominations, so I’m having a little trouble wrapping my mind around the Academy’s thought process – but, I suppose a Swift win in this category is inevitable. However, I fully back Lady GaGa, who is the perfect storm of creativity, vision, swagger and raw vocal talent (remember that, pop world?). (more…)
World: meet Underwood. She’s fiercely compassionate and endearingly idealistic (the riveting “Change”). She holds her beliefs with a firm but quiet conviction (“Temporary Home”). She’s as comfortable and convincing at tearing down a wrong-doer (the Dixie Chicks-esque “Songs Like This”) as she is nursing an irreparable heartache, whether it’s in the form of a haunting country standard (“Someday When I Stop Loving You”) or a rich pop ballad (“What Can I Say?”). And she’s one of the most gifted vocalists of this generation, possessing an instrument that, when colored and layered with emotion as she’s aptly learned to do on Play On, can have bone-chilling effects.
Like it or leave it, Play On is the most authentic encapsulation of Underwood’s artistry and persona to date, and serves as an exciting glimpse at how far a little growth can carry her. The best is yet to come, but in the meantime, the “good” is pretty damn good. – Tara Seetharam
#9 Sara Watkins Sara Watkins
As most people know by now, Sara Watkins is the female member of the now-disbanded (hopefully temporarily) New Grass trio, Nickel Creek. While Nickel Creek was difficult to classify in a certain genre (not bluegrass, not country), they were embraced by bluegrass and country music fans alike. Each member of the popular trio has released intriguing projects outside of Nickel Creek, but Watkins’ album has assumed the most decidedly country direction of them all. As a result, we are treated to a sublime album thanks to Watkins’ sweet voice and a set of impressively solid songs. – Leeann Ward (more…)
One of modern country’s little-known heroes, Robison has built a career on simple songs of unusually strong focus, voice and insight. His strongest collection from this decade mainly explores love at its point of disenchantment, with characters sitting at various fallouts pondering who’s to blame, who used who, or why the feelings aren’t requited. Not so much Sunshine, then, but quite a bit of Country. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Friendless Marriage”, “What Would Willie Do”, “Tonight”
Rascal Flatts, Feels Like Today
The group has yet to hit the nail on the “Rascal Flatts” head again like they did with this country-pop album – a collection of powerful, melody-driven songs on which Gary LeVox manages to tastefully reign in his tenor. When paired with the right material –particularly deep-rooted love songs like “Bless The Broken Road” –, the Flatts boys can emote like it’s nobody’s business, resulting in soaring, passionate performances. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Where You Are”, “Bless The Broken Road”, “Oklahoma-Texas Line”
Keith Urban, Love, Pain & the whole crazy thing
Urban’s creativity peaked with this ambitious set, with arrangements as revelatory as his lyrics. As an album, it’s a cohesive work of art, yet it still managed to produce his strongest collection of singles that work just as well outside of their home. – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “I Told You So”, “Stupid Boy”, “Got it Right This Time”
Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel, Willie and The Wheel
Willie Nelson teamed up with Western swing giants Asleep at the Wheal to create a project filled with warm treatments of Western swing standards. While Nelson sounds very much alive on this album, his trademark phrasing perfectly captures a relaxed, yet proficient, vibe. In order to be as prolific as Nelson tends to be, it’s common for him to minimally prepare for his recordings. It’s been reported that this was not the case for this album, however. Instead, he studied and practiced these songs until he felt comfortable enough to really do them justice. His extra effort is clearly evident as a result. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Hesitation Blues”, “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None…”, “Right or Wrong”
Brad Paisley, American Saturday Night
I’m drawn to albums that can flawlessly blend contemporary and traditional country music, and Paisley’s eighth album is a remarkable example in all senses. It’s a surprisingly revealing, carefully-written album that’s engaging yet lighthearted, and it embraces social consciousness as effectively as it does Paisley-seasoned humor. He’s not the first to do so, but Paisley certainly furthers the case that you can successfully look both forwards and backwards on the same album. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Welcome To The Future”, “Everybody’s Here”, “You Do The Math”
Ryan Adams, Heartbreaker
Adams had already released some exemplary work with Whiskeytown by the time the Aughts rolled around, but it was his classic solo debut that cemented him as alt-country’s “It” Boy. With the aural looseness of folk and the shrewd scrutiny of classic country, Heartbreaker plays like the very encapsulation of despair, each track exposing a cathartic new layer of its creator’s weary, self-mocking psyche. It would all be insufferably bleak if it didn’t sound so strangely healing. – DM
Recommended Tracks: “AMY”, “Oh My Sweet Carolina”, “Come Pick Me Up”
Bruce Springsteen, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
Recorded in Springsteen’s living room, The Seeger Sessions is a project that celebrates the songs of activist and folk singer, Pete Seeger. For this unique recording, Springsteen temporarily breaks away from his rock E Street Band and forms the more organic, big band style Sessions Band, which includes horns, banjo, guitar, percussion, piano, B3 organ, Harmonica, violin and upright bass. The result is a delightful album that sounds like a well executed jam session rather than a stuffy studio affair. – LW
Recommended Tracks: “Old Dan Tucker”, “O Mary Don’t You Weep for Me”, “Pay Me My Money Down”
Lady Antebellum, Lady Antebellum
There isn’t anyone in country music quite like this vibrant trio, whose debut is a heartfelt, organic mainstream country album with undertones of 70′s-esque R&B. There’s a beautiful imperfection to the pairing of Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott’s equally soulful voices, and they’ve got a particular knack for writing melodies that are as interesting as they are expressive. Lady Antebellum is both a skillful showcase of these strengths and an exciting glimpse at the group’s potential in country music. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “All We’d Ever Need”, “Love’s Lookin’ Good On You”, “I Run To You”
Alan Jackson, Like Red On a Rose
Who would think that the combination of bluegrass legend Alison Krauss and traditional country legend Alan Jackson would result in an album like this? With Krauss as producer, Jackson became the consummate crooner, singing with such depth and nuance that it was like hearing a completely different singer. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Like Red On a Rose”, “Nobody Said That it Would Be Easy”, “The Firefly’s Song”
Brad Paisley, Time Well Wasted
Brad Paisley’s fourth album continues the more aggressively muscular sound that its predecessor, Mud on the Tires had already wisely adopted. As is typical for a Paisley album his sharp wit shows up throughout the disc in the form of sly observations to which people can easily relate. However, he strays from the humor at times in order to deliver some of the most beloved songs of his career, including “Waitin’ on A Woman” and “When I Get Where I’m Going.” – LW
Recommended Tracks: “Rainin’ You”, “Easy Money”, “Time Well Wasted”
Be sure to check out Amazon’s digital store for their fifty albums for $5 for the month of September. While the choices are a little light on the country music this month, two out of the three country offerings more than make up for the disparity.
First, Gloriana’s debut album is replete with slick harmonies and even slicker production. The album has been met with some mixed reviews, but most agree that they are a very talented group of people if not too polished.
Trisha Yearwood’s 2007 album , received unanimous critical praise. Her first album with the then new Big Machine Records, after departing from powerhouse MCA Records, is one of her strongest albums to date. Singles like the title track and “This Is Me You’re Talking To” landed high on various end-of-the year lists in their respective release years. Moreover, non-singles such as the pretty “Let the Wind Chase You” (with Keith Urban), the cool as water “Cowboys Are My Weakness” and the unshakably gorgeous “Dreaming Fields” made equally strong impressions on the country music fans who had the pleasure of hearing Yearwood’s refreshingly rock solid album, which was likely and, surprisingly, one of country music’s best albums of 2007.
Finally, fans of Willie Nelson and western swing music will be pleasantly satisfied with Nelson’s collaborative project with western swing giants, Asleep at the Wheel. It’s been reported that while Willie typically goes into the studio and pounds out his parts very quickly for various albums, he took extra time to really learn the songs for this album. On Willie And the Wheel, Willie Nelson sounds especially relaxed and one with Asleep at the Wheel’s expert swing arrangements. Although it’s true that Willie Nelson’s output is incredibly prolific, this album is certainly one of the best that has come from his recent endeavors.
It’s time for an album sales update, our first since May 23. Brad Paisley is off to a strong start with American Saturday Night, selling 130k in its first week. That’s about 70k less than his previous two studio albums – Time Well Wasted and 5th Gear – opened with, but not a terrible drop-off, considering the state of the music market.
Meanwhile, the new studio albums by Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban are slowing down considerably, now being outpaced on a weekly basis by 2008 releases by Taylor Swift, Zac Brown Band, Darius Rucker and Lady Antebellum.
Among younger acts with a new album in 2009, the most impressive sales are coming from Jason Aldean, while 2008 releases from Kellie Pickler, Billy Currington, and Randy Houser are showing new signs of life.
Biggest disappointments? It’s hard not to look in the direction of Martina McBride, who has barely cleared the 100k mark on her new studio set. Lee Ann Womack’s 2008 set just made it over that mark, too. Then again, one only needs to have sold 455 copies to make the chart this week, with the anchor position going to Wynonna with that total. Her covers album Sing – Chapter 1 has sold 41k to date.
Here are the latest totals for albums released over the past three years that are still charting:
Rascal Flatts, Unstoppable – 842,000
Keith Urban, Defying Gravity – 452,000
Jason Aldean, Wide Open – 384,000
Kenny Chesney, Greatest Hits II – 281,000
Dierks Bentley, Feel That Fire – 219,000
Martina McBride, Shine – 104,000
John Rich, Son of a Preacher Man – 103,000
Eric Church, Carolina – 94,000
Rodney Atkins, It’s America – 88,000
Jake Owen, Easy Does It – 81,000
Randy Travis, I Told You So: Ultimate Hits – 78,000
Montgomery Gentry, For Our Heroes – 64,000
Willie Nelson & Asleep at the Wheel, Willie & The Wheel – 56,000
Steve Earle, Townes – 47,000
Colt Ford, Ride Through the Country – 45,000
Jason Michael Carroll, Growing Up is Getting Old – 45,000
Wynonna, Sing – Chapter 1 – 41,000
Hank Williams Jr. – 127 Rose Avenue – 34,000
Ryan Bingham, Roadhouse Sun – 15,000
Tracy Lawrence, Rock – 11,000
Darryl Worley, Sounds Like Life – 8,000
Holly Williams, Here With Me – 5,000
Charlie Robison, Beautiful Day – 3,000
Tanya Tucker, My Turn – 3,000
Taylor Swift, Fearless – 3,464,000
Sugarland, Love on the Inside – 1,683,000
George Strait, Troubadour – 914,000
Alan Jackson, Good Time – 869,000
Darius Rucker, Learn to Live – 754,000
Kenny Chesney, Lucky Old Sun – 721,000
Zac Brown Band, Foundation – 681,000
Rascal Flatts, Greatest Hits Vol. 1 – 680,000
Lady Antebellum, Lady Antebellum – 674,000
Toby Keith, 35 Biggest Hits – 652,000
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song – 509,000
Toby Keith, That Don’t Make Me a Bad Guy – 403,000
James Otto, Sunset Man – 374,000
Julianne Hough, Julianne Hough – 314,000
Kellie Pickler, Kellie Pickler – 261,000
Dierks Bentley, Greatest Hits – 255,000
Brad Paisley, Play – 247,000
Dolly Parton, Backwoods Barbie – 208,000
Tim McGraw, Greatest Hits Vol. 3 – 206,000
Billy Currington, Little Bit of Everything – 191,000
Trace Adkins, X – 185,000
Montgomery Gentry, Back When I Knew it All – 184,000
Joey + Rory, Life of a Song – 167,000
Blake Shelton, Startin’ Fires – 165,000
Eli Young Band, Jet Black and Jealous – 108,000
Lee Ann Womack, Call Me Crazy – 102,000
Craig Morgan, Greatest Hits – 81,000
Hank Williams III, Damn Right Rebel Proud – 80,000