Three of my all-time favorite things: books, country music, and books about country music. If you’re anything like me, we have the perfect giveaway for you.
In Gerry House’s new book Country Music Broke My Brain: A Behind-the-Microphone Peek at Nashville’s Famous & Fabulous Stars, one of country music’s most beloved radio personalities shares a collection of never-aired and never-before-published conversations with a variety of country music superstars and legends, including Johnny Cash, Reba McEntire, Brad Paisley, and many others.
Country Universe is pleased to offer a copy of this book to give away to one of our readers. To enter, leave a comment below before 12:00 p.m. CST on Saturday March 15. A winner will be chosen via random number generator and notified via email, so be sure to include a valid email address. One entry is allowed per IP address.
Brad Paisley’s had a lot of hit love songs over the years, many of which I’ve found irritating because they are either blithely condescending (“To the world, you’re nothing, but to me, you’re the world!”) or downright insulting (“I love the little moments where you do something stupid!”)
On “The Mona Lisa”, he opts for humility instead, and knocks it out of the park. He compares his own purpose in life to being the frame that holds the Mona Lisa, serving as nothing but the backdrop for the jaw-droppingly awesome lady he just feels lucky to have. Couple that with an incredibly fresh production, which showcases his guitar prowess and a remarkably alive vocal performance, and you’ve got one of his greatest singles to date.
For the second year, Country Universe is publishing a 40-deep list of the year’s best albums. Part One includes releases from talented newcomers, genre legends, and quite a few entries from the outskirts of country music. As usual, that’s where most of the cool stuff can be found.
Country Universe will close out our year with the conclusion of this list tomorrow. As always, share your thoughts and opinions in the comments!
#40 Ventucky Dan Grimm
Individual rankings: #12 – Jonathan
The EP format doesn’t leave much margin for error, but with a knack for unconventional imagery and a style that blends vintage SoCal rock with authentic honky-tonk, Dan Grimm ensures that every track on his freewheeling, endlessly likable Ventucky is a standout. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Skeletor,” “300 Beers”
#39 Magpie and the Dandelion The Avett Brothers
Individual rankings: #12 – Sam
Since moving up to a major label, the Avetts’ album releases have strayed further and further away from their ragged-but-right indie albums. There aren’t as many reckless moments, though “Another Is Waiting” and “Open Ended Life” come close. The trade is that their slower, introspective songs are increasingly sophisticated. “Good to You” is beautifully written, and Bob Crawford’s rare vocals are a dagger to the heart for any dads who spend too much time traveling. - Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Good to You”, “Another is Waiting”, “Morning Song”
#38 Love’s Truck Stop Matraca Berg
Individual rankings: #11 – Kevin
Originally released in Europe last year, Matraca Berg’s latest collection builds on the strength of 2011′s Dreaming Fields. She embodies the characters of her song so fully that she allows you to walk as easily in the shoes of a truck stop waitress as those of a grieving, abused daughter clutching flowers at her father’s graveside. Her vulnerable vocals shine best on “My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again”, which was sung by Patty Loveless many years ago. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Her Name is Mary”, “Fistful of Roses”, “My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again”
#37 Feels Like Home Sheryl Crow
Individual rankings: #11 – Leeann
It was inevitable that Sheryl Crow would eventually make a country album, since she’s dabbled in it over the years on various tribute projects and has collaborated with country stalwarts like Willie Nelson and Vince Gill, not to mention that even her pop albums have had elements of country in them. So, Feels Like Home seems appropriate for the title of her first official country record.
While certainly not a traditional country record, as I had personally hoped it would be, Crow is instead authentic to her way of doing things, while also being able to draw from the good parts of the modern sounds and styles of country music. - Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “We Oughta Be Drinkin’”, “Stay at Home Mother”
#36 They Called it Music The Gibson Brothers
Individual rankings: #11 – Ben
On the title track of They Called it Music, IBMA Entertainers of the Year Leigh and Eric Gibson pine for the days when music was honest, simple, and “helped the hard times heal” – when it was a medium of art and self-expression rather than a mere moneymaker. Whether lighthearted (“Buy a Ring, Find a Preacher”), melancholy (“Dying for Someone to Live For”) or introspective (“Something Coming to Me”), the entire album is a beautiful realization of that very standard. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Buy a Ring, Find a Preacher,” “They Called It Music,” “Something Coming to Me”
#35 Studebaker Mando Saenz
Individual rankings: Sam – #11
The third album from Texas-raised, Nashville resident Saenz is the most eclectic and best of his career. While the focus is still on his sharp songwriting skills, the mood varies from introspective to rocking to, on “Tall Grass,” downright playful. Saenz collaborated with an A-list batch of co-writers, including Kim Richey for “Break Away Speed” and Wade Bowen for “Bottle into Gold,” and the mix of songs with Saenz’s pleasant vocals and a hot band is a winning combination. - Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Break Away Speed”, “Bottle into Gold”, “Pocket Change”
#34 Build Me Up from Bones Sarah Jarosz
Individual rankings: #17 – Jonathan; #19 – Ben
On her third album, Build Me Up from Bones, Sarah Jarosz found her voice as both a singer and a songwriter. Her sense of phrasing draws from both her expansive knowledge of contemporary folk and her conservatory training in improvisation, and sharply observed original songs like “Gone Too Soon” and “1000 Things” more than hold their own alongside Joanna Newsom and Bob Dylan covers. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Over the Edge,” “Build Me Up from Bones,” “1000 Things”
#33 Opening Day Peter Cooper
Individual rankings: #16 – Leeann; #18 – Sam
eter Cooper’s second album was entitled after the great pedal steel guitar player, Lloyd Green. While Opening Day is not named after him, Green is still the other star player on Cooper’s third stellar solo album. Along with Green’s prominent steel and cooper’s own emotionally conversational voice, Cooper once again proves that he is as an adept songwriter as he is a journalist. Themes of living life well, baseball (Of course!), and even drone strikes. Each of these songs with its various themes are all presented with either insight or witty humor and sometimes both. - Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Much Better Now”, “Quiet Little War”
#32 Holly Grove The Whiskey Gentry
Individual rankings: #8 – Sam
It’s hard to say if The Whiskey Gentry will be the next big thing to come out of Georgia, but they have the talent to spare. The band mixes in bluegrass, country, a bit of Celtic and a dash of punk rock, resulting in a high-energy, hard-to-classify sound. “I Ain’t Nothing” and “Dixie” wouldn’t sound out of place in a honky tonk, while “Colly Davis” is a bluegrass-on-amphetamines winner. The title track is a four-and-a-half minute epic that was one of the most moving songs of the year. - Sam Gazdziak
#31 When We Fall Rebecca Frazier
Individual rankings: Ben – #7
Rebecca Frazier is a genuine triple threat – a great picker, a great singer, and a great songwriter. She shows that she can throw it down with the best of them on “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow” as well as a trio of stellar instrumental tracks, while her delivery of ballads such as the deeply personal “Babe in Arms” resounds with humanity and vulnerability, the result being one of the year’s finest bluegrass albums. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “When We Fall,” “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow,” “Babe in Arms”
#30 Not Cool Tim Easton
Individual rankings: #7 – Jonathan
Even if its self-deprecating title isn’t at all accurate, singer-songwriter Tim Easton’s Not Cool proves that, despite the glut of counter-evidence 2013 presented, it’s still possible to incorporate a heavy rock influence into folk and country styles without sacrificing wit, craft, or genre know-how. Spirited, ramshackle cuts like “Lickety Split” and “Crazy Motherfucker from Shelby, OH” make the underrated Easton’s seventh outing one of the year’s most raucous and, yes, coolest albums. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Troubled Times,” “Lickety Split,” “They Will Bury You”
#29 Wheelhouse Brad Paisley
Individual rankings: Sam – #7
Did you know that Brad Paisley released one of the best albums of his career this year? The humorous songs, like “Harvey Bodine” and “Death of a Single Man,” stayed humorous after multiple listenings, and unlike most other country singers, Paisley blended in pop elements, like sampling Roger Miller in “Outstanding in Our Field,” and did it without turning them into pop or rock songs with token country elements. “Southern Comfort Zone” and “Those Crazy Christians” showed more depth than their titles would suggest. And all anyone wanted to talk about was that damn “Accidental Racist” song. - Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Southern Comfort Zone”, “Beat This Summer”, “Death of a Single Man”
#28 In the Throes John Moreland
Individual rankings: #6 – Jonathan
A difficult meditation on what happens when one has experienced losses of love and faith, John Moreland’s In the Throes is a testament to the redemptive power of music. He may sing, “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore,” on the album’s most keenly observed song, but Moreland’s spectacular songwriting is something everyone should hear. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore,” “Break My Heart Sweetly,” “Blues & Kudzu”
#27 Dos Divas
Lorrie Morgan & Pam Tillis
Individual rankings: #13 – Kevin; #16 – Ben
A lively and entertaining collaboration between two nineties, second-generation country stars. The album features six full collaborations, along with four solo tracks from each artist. The pairings are funny and loose, recalling the best of those old-school duet albums from the sixties and seventies. But the biggest surprise is in the solo turns by Lorrie Morgan, who turns in some of her strongest moments ever put down to tape. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Last Night’s Makeup”, “Next Time it Rains”, “I Know What You Did Last Night”
#26 Good Wine and Bad Decisions
Individual rankings: #13 – Ben; #16 – Tara
Roberts’ comeback album is best approached with an aching heart and a glass of something smooth – all the better to absorb its combo of earthy blues and provoking, damn-that’s-depressing stories. But don’t mistake Good Wine and Bad Decisions for a downer; Roberts lures you into her dark places with such emotional gusto and groovy, engaging vibes that you somehow end up celebrating in misery. - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Arms of Jesus,” “He Made a Woman Out of Me,” “Bones,” “Old Strings”
#25 Finally Home Blue Sky Riders
Individual rankings: #4 – Dan
With their considerable powers combined, Georgia Middleman, Gary Burr, and Kenny Loggins (Kenny Loggins!) produce the year’s most relentlessly positive LP. No time for cynics here; this is distilled country-poptimism, a set of songs that could easily soundtrack a self-help seminar (“Just Say Yes”! “How About Now”!) and like it that way, thanks. And are you gonna complain? The songs are so catchy, you will help yourself. - Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Little Victories”, “Just Say Yes”, “How About Now”
#24 To All the Girls… Willie Nelson
Individual rankings: #12 – Tara; #15 – Leeann
Only Nelson could create an album akin to a mug of hot chocolate on a lazy Sunday afternoon that still feels elegant and impeccably thought-out. There’s no doubt he was tickled to record with all 18 female acts, from current stars to genre darlings to his own family, and it shows. He plays to each of her strengths with grace – stepping back in “Grandma’s Hands” to let Mavis Staples take it to church, standing quietly still in “Always On My Mind” so Carrie Underwood can inhabit the classic, waltzing right alongside Norah Jones in “Walkin.” It’s all comfort food, to be sure, but comfort food of the classiest, most tasteful order. - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Far Away Places,” “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”
Built around full-bodied melodies, subtle yet evocative arrangements, and authoritative vocal performances, Thorn in My Heart is another excellent collection of mature, compelling roots country songs by one of the genre’s most underrated singer-songwriters. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Thorn in My Heart,” “London Town,” “Breakaway Speed”
#22 Massachusetts Lori McKenna
Individual rankings: #3 – Kevin
Whereas the previous, excellent Lorraine dealt heavily in the themes of loss and grief, the finest moments on McKenna’s latest collection surround matters of the heart. McKenna captures the quiet desperation just under the surface of life’s mundanity better than any writer today. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Shake”, “Salt”, “Smaller and Smaller”
#21 The Stand-In
Individual rankings: #10 – Dan; #11 – Jonathan
Liz Rose’s daughter once again proves her family can school yours all day long, with a sophomore set of songs every bit as sharp as her debut. Her soft, demure singing style belies her ability to slip powerful blows—whether aimed at others or herself—into a song. Call her Nashville’s ninja. - Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: ”I Was Cruel”, “Silver Sings”, “Menagerie”
For the second year in a row, our seven writers – Kevin Coyne, Leeann Ward, Dan Milliken, Tara Seetharam, Ben Foster, Jonathan Keefe, and Sam Gazdziak – individually listed our twenty favorite albums and singles of the year. It’s a diverse crop of singles, some of which dominated country radio, while others were primarily heard in the Americana, bluegrass, and alternative country worlds. Today, we present the first half of our singles list, with the conclusion to follow tomorrow. Share your favorites in the comments!
“Someone Somewhere Tonight” Kellie Pickler
Individual rankings: #16 – Ben; #19 – Tara
A sweeping power ballad anchored by an intimate chorus and Pickler’s pleading sincerity. - Tara Seetharam
“Strong” Will Hoge
Individual rankings: #10 – Sam
Yeah, it’s the Chevy song, but whatever it takes to get Will Hoge introduced to a larger audience can’t be a bad thing. His lyrics about a true salt-of-the-earth individual ring true without ever steering into maudlin territory, and the line, “he ain’t jut tough, he’s strong,” is a great hook. It probably moved a fair number of pickup trucks, too. - Sam Gazdziak
#38 “Bourbon in Kentucky” Dierks Bentley
Individual rankings: #9 – Leeann
Although Bentley vies for radio play, “Bourbon in Kentucky” still sounds unique enough to stand out from the generic bombast of the male players on current country radio. In service to the intense angst of the song, the wailing guitars and the mix of Bentley’s and Kacey Musgraves’ emotive vocals make this single a riveting sonic and emotional experience. - Leeann Ward
#37 “You and I” Laura Bell Bundy
Individual rankings: #8 – Jonathan
Laura Bell Bundy goes more-Shania-than-Shania on a cover of Lady Gaga’s “You and I” that aches and shakes in equal measure. Bundy’s music is best when she embraces her campiest impulses, so it makes perfect sense for her to take a signature hit by the most theatrical star in pop and lasso it into the country genre. - Jonathan Keefe
#36 “You Can’t Make Old Friends” Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton
Individual rankings: #7 – Kevin
After several attempts to recreate the youthful playfulness of the classic “Islands in the Stream”, Rogers and Parton embrace their age and confront their own mortality. It’s an obvious truth that no matter how great a new friend is, they can’t replace the shared memories of someone you’ve known for a long time. Even if you’ve since parted ways, you still share a part of the other’s identity. How fitting that these two old friends are ours as well, making the entire proceedings that much more poignant. - Kevin Coyne
“I’ll Be There” The SteelDrivers
Individual rankings: #7 – Leeann
It’s almost unheard of for a group to lose a lead singer as dynamic as Chris Stapleton and still be as strong as ever with a replacement. Gary Nichols, however, managed to seamlessly slip into the SteelDriver’s front spot with the newly revamped band’s first single, “I’ll Be There.” The song is deliciously haunting both in content and melody. - Leeann Ward
#34 “Want Me Too” Charlie Horsham
Individual rankings: #7 – Dan
Imagine if your favorite Keith Urban song and your favorite Diamond Rio song were to meet in the middle ‘neath that old Georgia pi-i-iiine. You might end up with something like Worsham’s second single, a lovestruck tail-wagger with Urban drive and Rio harmonies. Show me a cuter line from this year than “My heart’s skippin’ like a stone on the water!” - Dan Milliken
#33 “Red” Taylor Swift
Individual rankings: #6 – Dan
“Red” is a curious mix of brilliant similes (“Fighting with him was like trying to solve a crossword and realizing there’s no right answer”), plain ol’ descriptions posing as similes (“Touching him was like realizing all you ever wanted was right there in front of you”), and logical pretzels twisted against their will into similes (“Forgetting him was like trying to know somebody you never met”—what!). But Swift’s passion and command of melody pull the disparate pieces together, resulting in one of the year’s most unique and compulsively listenable singles. - Dan Milliken
“All Over the Road” Easton Corbin
Individual rankings: #6 – Ben
A delicious slice of steel-heavy nineties-esque escapist country bliss – complete with a breezy melody and an infectious, laid-back vocal performance. More please. - Ben Foster
#31 “Beat This Summer” Brad Paisley
Individual rankings: #11 – Ben; #19 – Leeann
With a hooky sing-along melody, addictive guitar riff, and a unique genre-bending arrangement, Paisley proves that summer hits don’t have to suck. - Ben Foster
#30 “Pocket Change” Mando Seanz
Individual rankings: #5 – Sam
Texas radio stations jumped on this single when it was released, with good reason. Saenz has been known for his quiet, introspective ballads in the past, but “Pocket Change” starts with a slow burn before exploding into a full-blown rocker. “Where’s my Studebaker, I’m nobody’s pocket change,” he snarls as he walks/runs away from a bad love. - Sam Gazdziak
#29 “Weed Instead of Roses” Ashley Monroe
Individual rankings: #16 – Tara, Jonathan; #20 – Sam
One woman’s plea to pump some action into her deflated marriage – via weed, leather and whips. It pops because it’s provocative, but it works because Monroe blends delightful charm with tongue-in-cheek boredom like the pro that she is. - Tara Seetharam
“See You Again”
Individual rankings: #1 – Kevin
“See You Again” combines three of my favorite things: death, positivity, and power vocals. The entire premise that a person can look past their grief because their faith tells them they’ll be reunited with their lost loved one is hardly new to country music, but it’s rarely presented with such confident bravado and so little melancholy. I can’t think of another singer who could pull that off as believably as Underwood, who by the end of these proceedings makes me hope that the choir of angels in heaven sound like her insanely catchy backup singers do here. - Kevin Coyne
#27 “Carry Me Back to Virginia” Old Crow Medicine Show
Individual rankings: #9 – Sam; #12 – Jonathan
For anyone who wants to discover Old Crow Medicine Show beyond “Wagon Wheel,” this song is an excellent primer. Lightning-fast fiddle and vocals from Ketch Secor with a song about the Civil War, and crack band of musicians that favor enthusiasm over the precision that is often found in bluegrass. They’ve been often imitated but never duplicated. - Sam Gazdziak
“Blowin’ Smoke” Kacey Musgraves
Individual rankings: #7 – Ben; #15 – Sam
For three glorious minutes, the voice of the working class is heard once again on country radio. Musgraves suitably renders the song with a rundown sigh of a performance, while a gritty, rumbling arrangement places the listener right in the midst of the smoky haze. - Ben Foster
On the surface, it’s obvious that this is about an entangled dysfunctional relationship, but listening deeper reveals that the relationship is with an addictive substance. Encased in a deep melancholy, the song cleverly and astutely captures the parallels with the two types of relational embattlements. The observations acknowledge that while the sources may be different, many of the general effects are the same. - Leeann Ward
A smooth yet moody cocktail of country, folk, and soul that rides its long drawl into a sweet, simple chorus. Shoulda been a hit. - Dan Milliken
“DONE.” The Band Perry
Individual rankings: #6 – Jonathan; #15 – Tara
At a time when most contemporary country acts are aspiring to sound like arena rock, metal, and post-grunge bands that were terrible in the first place, The Band Perry at least had the good taste to blatantly rip off one of the best rock singles of the last decade for their hit “DONE.” - Jonathan Keefe
#22 “I Know What You Did Last Night” Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan
Individual rankings: #10 – Kevin, Ben
They may be in their fifties, but make no mistake about it: Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan can still party down when they want to. Built around good-humored conversational interplay between two old friends, “I Know What You Did Last Night” is one of the freshest, most entertaining up-tempos sent to radio this year, and a reminder that Tillis and Morgan are still two of country music’s most vibrant talents. - Ben Foster
#21 “I’d Rather Hear I Don’t Love You (Than Nothing at All)” Rhonda Vincent
Individual rankings: #9 – Ben; #10 – Leeann
Rhonda Vincent is always supreme whether she’s singing traditional bluegrass or, in this case, a good ol’ country weeper. Supported with the best kind of country acoustic instrumentation, Vincent’s voice satisfyingly leans into the heartbreak and desperation of a woman who is gripping a relationship that is obviously already dead. She knows it’s over, but her heart says that it’s not over until he literally says it’s over. - Leeann Ward
The festivities begin at 8 PM EST. Refresh for updates and check for winners above the fold:
Entertainer: George Strait
Male Vocalist: Blake Shelton
Female Vocalist: Miranda Lambert
Vocal Group: Little Big Town
Album: Blake Shelton, Based On a True Story…
New Artist: Kacey Musgraves
Vocal Duo: Florida Georgia Line
Song: “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, and Jimmy Yeary
Single: “Cruise” – Florida Georgia Line
Music Video: “Highway Don’t Care” – Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban; director: Shane Drake
Musical Event: “Highway Don’t Care” – Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban
Live Blog (EST):
7:04 First two wins go to “Highway Don’t Care” for Music Video and Vocal Event. First wavering of previously held sentiment: I totally want George Strait to win Entertainer of the Year for his farewell tour. – KJC
8:01 It’s 8:01 and Luke Bryan is wearing a glittery shirt. I’m already confused. – KJC
8:03 And the show starts with two of the most insufferable songs of the year (to me). Where’s the money shot of Zac Brown’s face? -TS
8:06 Weird how we can go from such a horrible representation of the genre to such a charming one. Carrie/Brad >>>Luke/FGL. – KJC
8:08 Brad and Carrie shining as always. This feud sketch is stellar. Thoughts on the Julianne Hough dig? – TS
8:09 It would be nice if there was someone other than Darius Rucker to hand the name to. – KJC
8:10 A bunch of rich people with insurance making health care jokes. Privilege goes down smooth with “Amarillo by Morning.” – KJC
8:10 “Cruise” is only one of the biggest crossovers of all time because they changed the chart rules. Boo. – KJC
8:12 I thought that was Blake Shelton in a costume. Turns out it’s the real Duck Dynasty guys. Wow. – KJC
8:15 SINGLE OF THE YEAR: “Cruise” – Florida Georgia Line. (That is not a typo.)
8:17 I can’t think of anything quippy, I’m so disgusted by this FGL win! – LW
8:20: CMA Awards 1992: The feud is Billy Ray Cyrus vs. Travis Tritt, and “Achy Breaky Heart” wins Single of the Year over “Maybe it Was Memphis”, “I Feel Lucky”, “Love, Me” and “Look at Us.” The more things change… – KJC
8:23 Jason Aldean singing “Night Train” is the best actual performance so far. We’re reaching a point where last year’s nadir is this year’s apex. Where’s Kacey Musgraves? – KJC
8:25 There she is. Singing a Brandy Clark co-write. Now we’re talking. -KJC
8:28 Can we take a moment to reflect on how awesome this chick’s mainstream success is? She’s looking and sounding fab here. Love this song. – TS
8:30 Always nice to hear some actual audible steel guitar on the CMAs for a change. – BF
8:34 Who else feels like a giddy 14-year-old listening to this new Lady Antebellum song? I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. – TS
8:35 Lady Antebellum with “Compass,” a song which is really growing on me. It sounds like it was made for a live setting. – BF
8:37 Song: “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, and Jimmy Yeary
8:38 Lee Brice wins Song of the Year with “I Drive Your Truck.” I’m not complaining. - TS
8:41 I feel like “I Drive Your Truck” is a surprise win…but maybe that just shows how much I’m out of the mainstream these days. – LW
8:42 As truck songs go, it’s not a bad one. But wow, there was so much more compelling material to choose from this year. – KJC
8:44 “Sober.” YES. – BF
8:45 Every year, there’s at least one performance that makes it clear that it’s not the sound system’s fault that everyone sounds bad. This year, it’s Little Big Town. They sound fantastic. – KJC
8:46 I’ll say it again: I always love LBT live, even if I don’t love the recorded version of the same song. – LW
8:45 LBT nailing “Sober” with a sparse and spiritual performance. – TS
8:46 LBT sounding fantastic as usual. This is one of those performances that makes me glad I tuned in in spite of all the drivel. – BF
8:47 Vocal Duo: Florida Georgia Line
8:48 For one brief moment, I was clinging to a tiny shred of hope that The Civil Wars would get it. I don’t know why. – BF
8:53: Keith and Miranda with “We Were Us.” I actually think I’m liking this performance better than the studio version. It’s one of those songs that I like well enough, but would like better if it had a better production. – BF
9:00 Having Vince Gill and Alison Krauss onstage doesn’t exactly invite favorable comparison to Taylor Swift’s vocal abilities, but I am enjoying this performance. I love hearing the cheers for Vince and Alison.
9:02 Incidentally, I may be going crazy, but I actually think T-Swift is sounding quite decent tonight. – BF
9:02 The R-eh-eh-ed hook doesn’t work in this setting. – KJC
9:01 I feel like the TS collaboration with Vince and Alison could be good, but my sound must be messed up, because it’s not working for me… – LW
9:02 Even when Taylor isn’t sounding as bad as she usually does, it’s pretty daring of her to sing with two of the best voices in country music! – LW
9:04 Florida Georgia Line performing “Round Here.” – BF
9:10 Hunter Hayes and Jason Mraz with “Everybody’s Got Somebody But Me.” I’m actually enjoying this so far. – BF
9:12 Hunter Hayes channeling Gary LeVox with this messy live performance. This kid has so much potential, though. – TS
9:12 New Artist: Kacey Musgraves
9:13 Woohoo! I could not be happier for Kacey. This is one that the CMA got very, very right. – BF
9:14 I liked that Hayes/Mraz performance – LW
9:14 Eric Church performing “The Outsiders.” – BF
9:16 I don’t think Eric Church’s backup singers are actually making those sounds – KCJ
9:17 I wonder what the aforementioned Tom Petty thinks of this one. Me, I kinda dig it. - TS
9:18 Does that bass breakdown in the Church song remind anyone else of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”? – LW
9:19 It would be hilarious if this segued right into the George jones tribute. – KJC
9:23 The Band Perry performing “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.” – BF
9:24 I’m half expecting Jennifer Nettles to walk out during this Sugar Land-lite tune. Really, though, that would be kind of awesome. – TS
9:28 Sheryl Crow presenting Album of the Year. – BF
9:29 Album: Blake Shelton, Based On a True Story…
9:29 Blech. So much for my optimism is predicting an LBT win here.
9:31 This is pretty much the worst slate of winners I can remember. – KJC
9:31 Tim McGraw performing “Southern Girl.” – BF
9:32 I’ve decided the CMA voters are just trolling now. – KJC
9:33 This song gets on my nerves so bad. I can’t believe the songwriters have the bad taste to rhyme “girl” with “rock my world.” – BF
9:35 And there’s glitter on Tim’s hat. – KJC
9:35 Nashville fans, do you get a 90s Rayna James vibe from this song? Have I lost my mind? – TS
9:35 What is with all the glitter? – KJC
9:40 Nice to hear some acknowledgement for Cowboy Jack Clement and Bobby Bare.
9:40 Blake Shelton performing “Mine Would Be You.” – BF
9:44 Not one part of me can get behind a Blake Shelton AOTY win, but this is a decent song and performance. – TS
9:47 Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Keith Urban, George Strait, and Rascal Flatts presenting Taylor Swift with the CMA Pinnacle Award.
9:48 Leeann: I would like to hear George Strait do a Swift song. – LW
9:49 LOL to Keith Urban describing Taylor Swift’s contribution to country music while “22″ plays in the background. – TS
9:50 LOL at Ellen’s “Pineapple Award” quip! – BF
9:51 ”The Pinnacle Award?” Okay ,they’re just making things up now. No time for the Hall of Fame inductees, but time for this. And stop acting so shocked. They announced this beforehand. – KJC
9:54 This is like the first husband who knows his wife is leaving and tries to keep her by giving a really shiny piece of jewelry. – KJC
9:56 But it’s not on her. It’s on them. We got a stupid award made up in 2005 for Garth Brooks, with Mick Jagger and Julia Roberts shout-outs, and nothing but a three-second wave for Bobby Bare. Too much. – KJC
10:01 Carrie Underwood highlight reel from the past year leading up to her Entertainer of the Year award… Oh, wait – KJC
10:05 So Tim McGraw got a standing O but Carrie polite applause? Huh. – KJC
10:05 Disappointed in her team for taking the lazy route with this medley, but nonetheless proud of Carrie for, ahem, following her own arrow during this Blown Away era. My EOTY. – TS
10:05 So weird that Carrie’s doing a medley. It’s usually what people do when they’re not big anymore… – LW
10:05 I really enjoy Carrie’s voice these days. – LW
10:07 Vocal Group: Little Big Town
10:07 Can’t complain about LBT. Though they still look like ABBA to me. – KJC
10:08 Beautiful shout-out to Nancy Jones. – KJC
10:09 Loving the George Jones tribute with George Strait and Alan Jackson. I cannot think of two guys better qualified for this job. – BF
10:11 First time tonight I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. Just lovely. – TS
10:12 So much history. So much love. – KJC
10:14 Kinda weird how the Opry can be just like a digital backdrop, given how many years the show was aired from the actual Opry. It feels sometimes like the arena has swallowed the CMA show like arena rock has swallowed country music. - KJC
10:14 The Jones tribute was wonderful. I felt a bit emotional during. I’m such a wimp. – LW
10:17 Zac Brown Band with Dave Grohl of The Foo Fighters debuting a new song, “Day of the Dead.” – BF
10:21 Between this and Eric Church’s “The Outsiders,” I’m all kinds of confused and happy. – TS
10:22 Brad Paisley performing “The Mona Lisa.” – BF
10:31 The Kenny Rogers tribute begins with Jennifer Nettles. – BF
10:32 Jennifer Nettles is certainly doing her best Dolly Parton impression. – KJC
10:32 Rascal Flatts singing “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” – BF
10:33 Darius Rucker singing “The Gambler.” This I can take, but if given a choice, I would just as soon hear Kenny Rogers sing it himself. – BF
10:35 Kenny Rogers singing “Islands In the Stream.” I love this song. Unashamedly. – BF
10:35 The audience sing-along to these Kenny Rogers tunes is my favorite part of the night so far. – TS
10:35 I’m enjoying hearing Jennifer Nettles sing this, but I can only imagine the warm fuzzies I would be getting if Dolly were onstage singing it. – BF
10:36 Wow. Darius did a rough job on “The Gambler.” Nettles and Rogers doing “Islands in the Stream” works for me! - LW
10:39 Female Vocalist: Miranda Lambert
10:40 Eh. Not my choice this year, but she’s being classy as ever in her acceptance speech. – BF
10:42 Very sweet of Miranda to recognize the other females in the category. Don’t agree with it, but there are worse things than her fourth FVOTY trophy (see: basically every other award given out today). – TS
10:44 Miranda is always classy when she accepts these awards. – LW
10:44 Given how the night’s gone so far, can we just call Male and Entertainer for Blake now? – KJC
10:46 Luke Bryan performing “Drink a Beer” (“a very personal and meaningful song dedicated to the memory of his brother and sister”). – BF
10:49 Leeann: I’ll admit that as much as I hate Luke’s music these days, I soften when I think of how he lost two siblings within a short span. I’m just a sap that way, I guess. – LW
10:49 It’s so easy to forget what a good vocalist Luke Bryan is these days. Wish that weren’t the case. His voice deserves better material. – TS
10:50 It’s nice to hear Luke Bryan singing in a quieter setting. – BF
10:50 This is a great song that is being sung well…on the set of Once Upon a Time. ABC sure is good with the corporate synergy. – KJC
10:50 Seriously? He even turns a song about his deceased siblings into a beer-drinking song? That takes…something. – LW
10:50 Male Vocalist: Blake Shelton
10:51 Can we just get over Blake Shelton already? – BF
10:51 Blake Shelton, however, is not in the same league as the other two men who won four of these at the time that they won. – KJC
10:53 Other two: Vince Gill and George Strait. – KJC
10:53 I can’t even. – TS
10:56 Blake Shelton, Vince Gill and George Strait: One of these things is not like the other. – TS
10:57 I’ve learned to accept that ABC is going to use the CMA Awards to shamelessly plug their programming. I just wish that they’d leave the Entertainer of the Year award out of it. – BF
10:57 Entertainer: George Strait
10:58 That just saved the whole night. – KJC
10:59 I share Kevin’s remorse for not picking George Strait for Entertainer. Was he on the top of his game this year? No. But he’s still the only nominee whom I can be genuinely happy for their winning. – BF
11:00 Keith Urban’s arms in the air is the best reaction to George Strait’s EOTY win. I had the privilege of seeing and reviewing his farewell concert earlier this year, and he is an entertainer indeed. – TS
11:01 Go King Gentleman George Strait!! I’m so, so happy for George Strait right now! Strait is so classy. – LW
10:03 Thanks so much for hanging with us, y’all. Not a bad show, in all honesty. All props to Ben for keeping this post alive in the midst of technical difficulties! – TS
10:03 That was almost worth the three hours. Almost! – KJC
10:04 I’m relieved that that didn’t wind up another Blake Shelton victory. – BF
10:04 Thanks, all! This was a blast. Rough show as usual, but we had a few great moments. – BF
Since its inception, the top honor an artist could be given at the Country Music Association awards is this one: Entertainer of the Year. Originally a revolving door of winners, the winner in early years was often not even nominated the following year. In 1981, Barbara Mandrell became the first artist to win the award twice. Alabama succeeded her with a three year run from 1982-1984. Fourteen years later, Garth Brooks became the first artist two win four times, a feat later matched by Kenny Chesney in 2008.
Here’s a look back at the award from the very beginning, along with some facts and feats about the category and its nominees.
One year after being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Eddy Arnold was named the very first Entertainer of the Year at the inaugural CMA awards in 1967. Don’t assume it was a sympathy vote. Arnold had three #1 hits in the twelve months leading up to the ceremony, as he was in the middle of his impressive mid-sixties comeback, a period best defined by the 1965 classic, “Make the World Go Away.” He remains the only member of the Hall of Fame to win this award after being inducted.
Glen Campbell was a big awards favorite in 1968, with “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Gentle On My Mind” both dominating the Grammy awards earlier that year. His win in this category foreshadowed bigger things, as he soon became a network variety star, while also scoring major country and pop hits with “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston.”
Johnny Cash’s career was rejuvenated on the strength of two live prison albums, the latter of which produced the massive Shel Silverstein-penned smash, “A Boy Named Sue.” His victory came in a year that marked the beginning of his network variety show and had him dominating the country singles charts, spending ten combined weeks at #1 with “Sue” and “Daddy Sang Bass.”
Merle Haggard was a mainstay in this category from the beginning, nominated in each of the first seven years of the CMA Awards. His victory in 1970 coincided with his commercial peak, with signature hits “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Okie From Muskogee” helping him secure his only win in this category.
The last of four consecutive years where the Male Vocalist winner matched the Entertainer winner, Charley Pride went home with both awards in 1971. A winner on his fourth nomination, his popularity skyrocketed upon the release of “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” which was climbing the charts at the time of the awards ceremony.
Instead of attending the awards show, Loretta Lynn’s husband Mooney went hunting. He didn’t want to watch her lose, but he missed watching history unfold as she became the first woman to win Entertainer of the Year. Lynn’s victory came on the heels of both solo hits like “One’s on the Way” and her popular duets with Conway Twitty.
Tom T. Hall
Today he’s best known for Hee Haw, the country music variety show that he co-hosted, and it’s no coincidence that he won while the show was in its prime. Still, Clark is also one of country’s most admired legends, and his legacy goes far beyond the television show that showcased his extensive musical and comedic talents.
The massive success of “The Most Beautiful Girl” and “Behind Closed Doors” helped Charlie Rich win this award. It was a long time coming, as Rich toiled in obscurity despite critical acclaim for his work. He would continue to score big hits on the country and pop charts over the next couple of years, at one point charting hits on different labels at the same time.
John Denver’s victory in this race led to the most infamous moment in CMA history. Though he claimed it was due to medication later on, presenter Charlie Rich seemed to be making a furious statement against the pop crossover artists dominating country music when he opened the envelope, read it, and then lit a cigarette lighter and burned the envelope. The paper went up in flames as he derisively snarled the winner’s name, “My friend, Mister John Denver.” Poor John, accepting via satellite, was clueless to what was going on at the Opry house, and graciously accepted his award.
This 2007 Hall of Fame inductee won this award just as he was changing labels. Tillis first gained notoriety for his remarkable songwriting talent, but eventually he was scoring enough hits to earn a place in this category. He would go on to have several more big hits after winning this award, earning another nomination in this category two years later.
Ronnie Milsap dominated the CMA Awards, becoming one of its most frequently honored performers during the formative years of the awards show. He finally won the big prize on his third try, powered by the success of his classic hit, “It was Almost like a Song.”
Her famous quote – “I’m not leaving country. I’m taking it with me” – must have held some water with the Nashville establishment, as Parton won this award at the height of her pop crossover success with “Here You Come Again,” the title track of her first platinum album. The front of her dress popped open before she went up to receive the trophy, prompting her to quip, “That’s what I get for trying to put fifty pounds of mud in a five pound bag.”
He never won Male Vocalist of the Year, but superstar Willie Nelson was given his due by the CMA in 1979 when they awarded him Entertainer of the Year. While it wasn’t his biggest year on the charts, residual goodwill from Stardust and his collaborations with Waylon Jennings helped carry him to victory.
Charlie Daniels Band
Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers
She had a few big hits in 1980, like “Crackers” and “The Best of Strangers.” But it was her incredibly popular variety show with sisters Louise and Irlene that truly showcased her versatility as an entertainer, securing the first of two wins in this category.
Oak Ridge Boys
Despite sharing the category with four artists who had never won this award, Barbara Mandrell became the first artist in CMA history to win Entertainer of the Year for the second time. Credit the continued popularity of her television show and the biggest hit of her career, “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”, which featured a guest turn by fellow nominee George Jones.
Oak Ridge Boys
The band that laid the groundwork for all other country bands that followed, Alabama set a new bar for commercial success in the early eighties. The eligibility period included the release of their biggest-selling studio album, and also two of their signature hits: “Mountain Music” and “Love in the First Degree.”
As their studio albums sold in the millions, every single Alabama released to radio was hitting #1, a stretch that would eventually include 21 consecutive chart-toppers. They repeated in this category on the strength of hits like “Dixieland Delight” and “The Closer You Get.”
Oak Ridge Boys
A mere three years after Barbara Mandrell made history by being the first artist to win two Entertainer awards, Alabama went her one better and won three. They remain one of only two acts to win this award three years in a row, doing so as their hits “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler)” and “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” dominated the airwaves.
Few country artists command as much respect as Ricky Skaggs, a consummate singer and musician. Skaggs’ victory in this category signaled the resurgence of traditional country music, as he was the first winner since 1976 to not have achieved crossover hits on pop radio.
One of the most popular new traditionalists of the mid-eighties, McEntire achieved her commercial breakthrough with “Whoever’s in New England”, which was aided in popularity by her first of many high-concept music video clips. McEntire would eventually become the most nominated woman in history, scoring ten nominations over eleven years.
Hank Williams, Jr.
When Hank Williams, Jr. won the Music Video award the previous year, he reminded voters, “I make audio, too.” They finally got around to acknowledging his meaningful contributions to the genre, awarding him the first of two Entertainer trophies in 1987.
Hank Williams, Jr.
Hank Jr. may have waited a long time for some CMA love, but once it came, it was in droves. He won Album of the Year the same night he repeated in this category. His biggest hit of the year, “Young Country”, featured guest appearances by up and comers like Highway 101 and Marty Stuart.
Ricky Van Shelton
Hank Williams, Jr.
Three years after his most recent Male Vocalist trophy, megastar George Strait was named Entertainer of the Year. He would go on to have one of his biggest years at radio, with two multi-week #1 singles in the twelve months that followed his victory.
Ricky Van Shelton
While Randy Travis dominated the Male Vocalist race, George Strait was given his due again in the Entertainer category. He wore an Entertainer of the Year cowboy belt on the cover of Livin’ it Up, perhaps giving him good luck toward his second victory. He remains the most nominated in this category, and is only the second Hall of Famer to receive a nomination after being inducted into the Hall.
A mere year after winning the Horizon award, Garth Brooks was the Entertainer of the Year at the CMA Awards. He was breaking every sales record in the book by that point. Shortly before the ceremony, he became the first country artist to enter the overall album chart at #1, leading to a media frenzy that gained unprecedented exposure for both Garth and the genre he represented.
Given that he was already the biggest-selling country artist the world had ever seen, it was no surprise that Garth Brooks won his second Entertainer of the Year trophy in 1992. His continued popularity was fueled by sold out live shows that soon led to network specials showcasing his unique brand of arena country.
Brooks & Dunn
Vince Gill capped off an amazing night at the 1993 CMA Awards with his first victory in this category. It was his fifth win of the night, as he also took home Male Vocalist, Song, Album and Vocal Event. As he was also the show’s sole host, the collective exposure pushed him to multi-platinum sales.
Brooks & Dunn
The soft-spoken Gill won for a second year, which was no big surprise given his widespread popularity in Music City. He also went home with Album and Male Vocalist the same night, giving him a stunning fourteen trophies in only five years.
Brooks & Dunn
As one of the evening’s top nominees, Alan Jackson brought his parents as his special guests. After losing in every other category, he expressed relief that he finally won something, as going home empty handed would’ve been embarrassing. Jackson would eventually become one of the organization’s most awarded artists.
Brooks & Dunn
They were already winners of five CMA awards, due solely to their domination of the Vocal Duo category. But in 1996, they finally won another race, and it was a big one. Brooks & Dunn remain the only duo to win this award, with The Judds and Sugarland being the only other duos to receive nominations.
Brooks & Dunn
In a year when all five nominees had won this award before, it was Garth Brooks who returned to the winner’s circle, tying Alabama’s long-standing record of three victories in this category. Adding to the sense of déjà vu, this was the third year in a row where all five nominees were the same.
Brooks & Dunn
As hard as it is to believe that there were any records left for him to break by 1998, Garth Brooks shattered another one, becoming the first artist in the history of the CMA to win four Entertainer of the Year awards. By this time, Garth had already sold more than 60 million albums, and while he has yet to win this award again, he remains the top-selling solo artist of all time in the United States.
The odds seemed against Shania Twain, as she had never won a CMA award before and the last woman to win was Reba McEntire thirteen years earlier. Fittingly, McEntire was on hand to present the trophy to Twain, who won on the strength of Come On Over, which eventually became top-selling country album of all time and the top selling album of the decade from any genre.
The Dixie Chicks capped off a stunning three-year run at the CMA Awards with this victory, one of nine that they racked up since 1998. Within those three years, their first two albums each sold over ten million copies, and the band was widely credited for championing country radio and traditionalism while other top acts were crossing over to pop radio.
Brooks & Dunn
After winning two Male Vocalist and two Album of the Year honors in the previous three years, Tim McGraw finally won the CMA’s top award. It was a satisfying acknowledgment of an artist who’d had his talent underestimated in the first few years of his stardom, but built up a reputation for his stellar taste in choosing material.
Brooks & Dunn
Jackson’s win in 1995 came as he was reaching his commercial peak. In the years that followed, Jackson remained a successful and well-respected artist that got less attention every year when it came time to hand out awards. Then came the one-two punch of “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” and “Drive (For Daddy Gene)”, both of which were viewed as the very embodiment of all that makes country music unique and essential. This was one of five awards he was honored with that night.
Brooks & Dunn
Although the ACM had chosen Toby Keith as their standard bearer a few months earlier, the CMA stuck with the previous year’s winner Alan Jackson. By 2003, Jackson had evolved into an elder statesman for the genre, but still managed to stay relevant with hits both clever (“It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”) and poignant (“Remember When.”)
Brooks & Dunn
Chesney’s long dry spell at the CMA’s came to a satisfying end as the superstar collected both Entertainer and Album of the Year trophies. He had been charting for eleven years before finally winning his first CMA award.
One of the most surprising and endearing wins in the history of this category, a shocked and humbled Urban accepted this award in New York City. He couldn’t have picked a better night to bring his Australian parents to the ceremony.
Brooks & Dunn
It’s pretty rare to come back and win this award for a second time, as most multiple wins have been consecutive in this category. But Kenny Chesney joined Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson as the only other artists to pull it off when he won in 2006, a club that would later be joined by Taylor Swift.
Chesney entered the elite company of Garth Brooks, Alabama, and Alan Jackson with his third victory in this category. Rascal Flatts, meanwhile, became the first group since the Dixie Chicks to score back-to-back nominations, a feat also accomplished by Alabama and the Oak Ridge Boys.
As Sugarland became only the third duo in history to receive a nomination and George Strait extended his record number of nominations to sixteen, Kenny Chesney tied Garth Brooks for the most wins in this category with his fourth victory. His popularity at radio and retail was remarkable, but it was Chesney’s highly attended summer stadium tours that earned him these wins.
Taylor Swift both made history and prevented it with her win in this category. She simultaneously became the youngest artist ever and the first female solo artist in ten years to take home the prize. She also kept Kenny Chesney from becoming the sole all-time champion in this category, as he remains tied with Garth Brooks with four wins to date.
Zac Brown Band
2010 shook up the category, with three first-time contenders in the running for the crown for the first time since 1981. Despite all the new blood, sixth time proved to be the charm for Brad Paisley, who finally won this award after five consecutive losses. Paisley’s persistent popularity helped him earn the nod in a year where the two previous winners weren’t even nominated.
Thirty years after Barbara Mandrell became the first woman to win this award twice, Swift became the second to do so. She won the award on the strength of her third set, Speak Now, which showcased her growing maturity as a songwriter and her growing appeal beyond her teenage and young adult fan base.
One of the most surprising wins in CMA history, few saw Blake Shelton’s victory coming. But it isn’t too surprising when you consider the number of artists who parlayed network television exposure into a win in this category. Perhaps in this new era of media saturation and minimal album sales, television may once again become a deciding factor when choosing the genre’s top star every year.
George Strait’s farewell tour helped return him to the category for the first time since 2009, earning him a record-extending eighteenth career nomination. Strait joins previous winners Taylor Swift (2009, 2011) and Blake Shelton (2012) in attempting a return to the winner’s circle. Luke Bryan earns his first nomination, just months after winning the ACM trophy. Jason Aldean, meanwhile, is hoping to get lucky the third time around.
Facts & Feats
(4) – Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney
(3) – Alabama, Alan Jackson
(2) –Vince Gill, Barbara Mandrell, George Strait, Taylor Swift, Hank Williams, Jr.
(2) – Garth Brooks (1991-1992, 1997-1998), Vince Gill (1993-1994), Barbara Mandrell (1980-1981), George Strait (1989-1990), Hank Williams, Jr. (1987-1988)
(18) – George Strait
(12) – Alan Jackson
(11) – Brooks & Dunn
(10) – Reba McEntire
(9) - Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney
(8) - Vince Gill, Merle Haggard, Brad Paisley
(7) – Keith Urban
(6) – Barbara Mandrell, Tim McGraw, Willie Nelson, Brad Paisley, Charley Pride, Keith Urban
(5) – Alabama, Loretta Lynn, Ronnie Milsap, Kenny Rogers
Most Nominations Without a Win:
(5) – Kenny Rogers
(4) – Toby Keith, Randy Travis
(3) – Jason Aldean, Waylon Jennings, The Judds, Oak Ridge Boys
Winners in First Year of Nomination:
Eddy Arnold (1967), Garth Brooks (1991), Glen Campbell (1968), John Denver (1975), Charlie Rich (1974), Taylor Swift (2009), Mel Tillis (1976), Shania Twain (1999), Keith Urban (2004), Hank Williams, Jr. (1987)
CMA Entertainers of the Year Who Have Never Won the ACM Award:
Eddy Arnold, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Roy Clark, John Denver, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw, Ronnie Milsap, Brad Paisley, Charlie Rich, Blake Shelton, Ricky Skaggs, Taylor Swift, Mel Tillis, Keith Urban
ACM Entertainers of the Year Who Have Never Won the CMA Award:
Luke Bryan, Mac Davis, Mickey Gilley, Freddie Hart, Toby Keith, Kenny Rogers, Carrie Underwood
In a year that has already brought the deaths of immortal talents like George Jones, Slim Whitman, Patti Page, and Jack Greene, not to mention the untimely loss of Mindy McCready, it is understandable that the recent news regarding Randy Travis is having the country music fans collectively holding their breath with nervousness and dread.
There is something distinctly different about how I am processing the news about Randy Travis. The thought of losing him is inextricably linked with a feeling that we’d be losing an essential core of the country music that I fell in love with more than two decades ago. Now, I remember Randy Travis from when I was a child. What little kid wouldn’t be in love with a catchy song like “Forever and Ever, Amen”?
By the time I was old enough to discover country music on my own, he was already something of an elder statesman, despite his young age. As I delved into the history of the genre I was falling in love with, widely accepted concepts like Travis starting the new traditionalist movement and Storms of Life being one of greatest albums of all time had taken root. The truth is, traditionalism never really went away, and even during the Urban Cowboy years, artists like Ricky Skaggs and Emmylou Harris were having commercial success with roots-based music.
But Randy Travis didn’t just have a bit of success. He sold millions of records in a time where almost no country acts were doing so, and certainly none who didn’t incorporate pop or rock sounds into their work. His massive success was the tipping point that made the nineties boom inevitable, as labels saw new acts like Clint Black and Alan Jackson as being capable of superstar status, instead of just being genre favorites that sold moderately well.
He never really got the credit he deserved for this, with the industry treating him like old news despite him continuing to score hits and sell platinum throughout the nineties and early 2000′s. There are so many great singles that I was around for when they first came out. “Before You Kill Us All.” “Look Heart, No Hands.” “Out of My Bones.” “Whisper My Name.” “If I Didn’t Have You.” “Better Class of Losers.” “The Hole.” “Three Wooden Crosses.” “Dig Two Graves.” The list goes on and on.
He’s also responsible, through no fault of his own, for what I call country music’s Messiah Complex. After he revolutionized the widespread appeal for traditionalism, which led to a solid decade of traditional country artists being signed and succeeding wildly, the sounds began to drift back to pop and rock flavorings. Since this shift, every slightly twangy newbie has been anointed as the savior of country music. Lee Ann Womack, Brad Paisley, Dixie Chicks, Joe Nichols, Josh Turner, Jamey Johnson, and Gretchen Wilson have all been shouldered with the burden of being the next Randy Travis.
This has led to deep disappointment when their second or third album struggled, or even worse, to feelings of betrayal when these selected stewards veered away from traditional country music. All that pressure, and not a one of them even started off with an album in the same league as Storms of Life, though Johnson and the Chicks came remarkably close.
I can’t get my head or my heart around the thought that his contemporary titan might not be with us anymore. I can’t stomach the coverage that focuses more on his personal troubles than his incredible body of work and peerless impact on country music as a whole.
Please use the comments to share your own thoughts and feelings about Randy Travis. Also, I recommend reading the Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists piece that Leeann Ward wrote a few years ago. It’s an excellent place to start for those who are looking to discover the his rich and diverse catalog.
An impressive run of hit singles and his visible Opry stardom gave him tremendous success as a singer, but it’s been Bill Anderson’s songwriting that’s kept him topping the country charts for decades longer than even his most successful contemporaries.
The man who’d become known as Whisperin’ Bill Anderson had always wanted to be a professional writer, but it was sports journalism that was his original goal. But as he was working his way through college as a radio disc jockey, he was inspired to try his hand at songwriting. An early attempt was “City Lights”, which ended up a smash hit for Ray Price and began a songwriting career that is still going strong 55 years later.
Soon, he was writing hits for himself as well as others. He earned his Whisperin’ moniker from his soft, conversational singing style, which found him speaking as often as singing. The sixties brought classic recordings like “The Tips of My Fingers”, which didn’t include the plural of tip when he recorded it, but was added when other artists like Roy Clark and Steve Wariner also had hits with it. He launched Connie Smith’s career with “Once a Day”, just a year after he released a country classic of his own, the #1 smash hit, “Still.”
In addition to his solo hits like “Po’ Folks” and “I Get the Feeling”, he had a series of successful duets with Jan Howard and with Mary Lou Turner. A collaboration with the latter, “Sometimes”, was his final #1 hit in 1975, after which his hits as an artists became fewer and far between. From this point on, his popularity as a performer would be limited to his Opry appearances, and when those shows became televised in the eighties, his colorful personality reached an entire new audience.
While he had plenty of songs recorded in the eighties and nineties, it’s been in the new century that Anderson had his most prolific songwriting renaissance. He’s co-written songs for contemporary artists such as Sara Evans and Sugarland. Amazingly, in his fifth decade of writing, he earned his first Song of the Year trophy for the Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss hit, “Whiskey Lullaby.” Just a couple of years later, he won a companion piece for his mantle, taking home honors for the George Strait hit, “Give it Away.”
Amazingly, these awards came after he was already inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, an honor he received in 2001. In addition to remaining a current songwriter on the charts, Anderson continues to document the incredibly legacy of country music, hosting popular concert reunions for country singers and songwriters of days gone by. He has also written successful memoirs and reflections on life, and can still be found on the Opry stage sharing some of those stories in between performances of the songs that have kept him on the stage for more than five decades.
The Tip of My Fingers, 1960
Po’ Folks, 1961
Mama Sang a Song, 1962
For Loving You (with Jan Howard), 1967
My Life (Throw it Away if I Want to), 1969
Sometimes (with Mary Lou Turner), 1975
Essential Singles by Other Artists:
City Lights (Ray Price), 1958
Once a Day (Connie Smith), 1964
The Cold Hard Facts of Life (Porter Wagoner), 1967
The Lord Knows I’m Drinking (Cal Smith), 1973
Whiskey Lullaby (Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss), 2004
In the early eighties, a new kind of country band surfaced, structured like the rock bands that came before them, but deeply grounded in country instrumentation. Alabama were the pioneers of the field, and they reached a level of superstardom beyond most bands of any genre during their peak.
Three of the four members of Alabama are cousins from the band's namesake state, though Jeff Cook, Teddy Gentry, and Randy Owen first began performing as Young Country in 1969. The band went through a series of day jobs and a series of drummers while honing their sound on the local music circuit in Alabama and neighboring states. After switching to Wildcountry in 1972, and settling on Rick Scott as their drummer in 1974, they finally took the name Alabama in 1977.
A series of minor hits on an independent label led to a contract with RCA, after a final lineup change replaced Scott with Mark Herndon. When the band broke in 1980 with the top twenty hit “My Home's in Alabama”, what followed set a new bar for commercial success in country music. The band scored a record consecutive 21 #1 hits, became the first act to win CMA Entertainer of the Year three times in a row, and released several multi-platinum albums, including the five million-selling Mountain Music in 1982.
Their success opened the floodgates for other country bands, eventually replacing vocal groups as the dominant non-solo sound in the genre. Though they didn't receive much critical acclaim for their work, their relevance on the
commercial front was undeniable. Even as a wave of new acts in the nineties again raised the bar for what country acts could achieve, Alabama remained successful, consistently selling gold and platinum while radio continued to play their hits.
At the turn of the century, the band slowed down, even doing a farewell tour. They still released music, however, scoring their first #1 country album in 17 years with Songs of Inspiration in 2006. They also returned to the penthouse of the singles chart in 2011, scoring their 34th #1 single in support of Brad Paisley's “Old Alabama.”
They are currently recording and performing as a trio, with Herndon departing the group after a rift over royalties that led to a lawsuit. They were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005, and returned to the stage in 2013 for a fortieth anniversary tour.
In case you spent yesterday outdoors and missed it, Brad Paisley released his eyebrow-raising new collaboration with rapper LL Cool J, “Accidental Racist,” and the Internet’s eyebrows shot up into outer space.
Summarizing this song and all it entails feels, frankly, beyond me. It has to be experienced firsthand. Listen to it
if you can find a clip that hasn’t been taken down, or download it on iTunes. But here are the lyrics:
To the man who waited on me
At the Starbucks down on Main
I hope you understand
When I put on that T-shirt
The only thing I meant to say
Is I’m a Skynyrd fan
The red flag on my chest is somehow like the elephant
In the corner of the South
And I just walked him right into the room
Just a proud rebel son
With an old can of worms
Looking like I’ve got a lot to learn
But from my point of view
I’m just a white man
Coming to you from the Southland
Trying to understand what it’s like not to be
I’m proud of where I’m from
But not everything we’ve done
And it ain’t like you and me can rewrite history
Our generation didn’t start this nation
We’re still picking up the pieces
Walking over eggshells
Fighting over yesterday
And caught between Southern pride
And Southern blame
They called it Reconstruction
Fixed the buildings, dried some tears
We’re still sifting through the rubble
After 150 years
I’ll try to put myself in your shoes
And that’s a good place to begin
It ain’t like I can walk a mile
In someone else’s skin
‘Cause I’m just a white man
Living in the Southland
Just like you, I’m more than what you see
I’m proud of where I’m from
And not everything we’ve done
And it ain’t like you and me can rewrite history
Our generation didn’t start this nation
And we’re still paying for the mistakes
Than a bunch of folks made
Long before we came
Caught somewhere between Southern pride
And Southern blame
[LL Cool J]
Dear Mr. White Man, I wish you understood
What the world is really like when you’re living in the hood
Just because my pants are saggin’ doesn’t mean I’m up to no good
You should try to get to know me, I really wish you would
Now my chains are gold, but I’m still misunderstood
I wasn’t there when Sherman’s March turned the South into firewood
I want you to get paid, but be a slave I never could
Feel like a newfangled Django dogging invisible white hoods
So when I see that white cowboy hat, I’m thinking it’s not all good
I guess we’re both guilty of judging the cover, not the book
I’d love to buy you a beer, conversate and clear the air
But I see that red flag and I think you wish I wasn’t here
I’m just a white man
(If you don’t judge my do-rag)
Coming to you from the Southland
(I won’t judge your red flag)
Trying to understand what it’s like not to be
I’m proud of where I’m from
(If you forget my gold chains)
But not everything we’ve done
(I’ll forget the iron chains)
It ain’t like you and me can rewrite history
(Can’t rewrite history, baby)
(The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin’)
I hope you understand what this is all about
(Quite frankly, I’m a black Yankee, but I’ve been thinking about this lately)
I’m a son of the New South
(The past is the past, you feel me)
And I just want to make things right
(Let bygones be bygones)
Where all that’s left is Southern pride
(RIP Robert E. Lee, but I’ve gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean)
So, where to even begin reacting? The reading assignments have already piled up. There’s the Tennessean article by the reliably moderate, incisive Peter Cooper. There’s the quippy Twitter snark, dutifully logged at the snark-centric Witstream. There are no shortage of fiery deconstructions at sites like Jezebel. And because this is the Internet age, there’s already quite a bit of word from Paisley himself.
But it’s also hard to throw the guy completely under the bus. He’s demonstrated that he’s at least more thematically ambitious than many of his country contemporaries, and I don’t think anyone would question his or LL’s good intent here. If nothing else, this incredibly clumsy, awkward track may inspire some productive discourse in communities that are, frankly, still hurting for it. The comparison of judging Confederate flags to judging do-rags may hurt your brain on every level, but hey, maybe we’ll wind up with fewer songs where baggy pants are used as shorthand for a life of crime?
What say you? Is there anything good to be gained from “Accidental Racist”? Is it not as bad as all that, or every bit as bad? Will LL Cool J host next year’s ACMs, or will he simply get two full performance slots? (And given that we’re wading in sensitive territory here, please do keep your remarks civil and in line with our Comment Policy.)