It’s always interesting to see how music industry awards reflect (or don’t reflect) larger narratives in the industry itself.
If you’re interested in the narratives behind this year’s CMAs, look no further than the two men who’ve made the biggest strides on the ballot: Blake Shelton and Jason Aldean. Both show up in Entertainer and Male Vocalist, plus Album and Single, plus assorted other stuff. But the marketing approaches that have gotten them there are vastly different.
Shelton’s is the traditional wisdom: cover all media ground with an inoffensive product until the people buy in. So he’s a core act at radio; he’s on a popular TV show (The Voice); he hosted the ACMs; he was in a ton of magazines for his marriage; he Twitters a lot.
Then there’s the Aldean approach: make a distinct product, generate enough radio support to plant the seeds, then go straight to the fans, tour relentlessly, build up word-of-mouth – let the industry come to you. I think it’s the more effective approach, personally. Look at Eric Church, who has a fraction of Shelton’s ubiquity but beat him in first-week album sales and is still beating him cumulatively - no TV spotlights, no gossip mags, no Twitter.
And look at how many acts on this ballot started on indie labels. Aldean, Taylor Swift, Zac Brown Band, Thompson Square, the freaking Civil Wars. Major-label power still matters, but it seems to mean less all the time. Media saturation still matters, but it seems to mean less all the time. Music is the only thing that always counts, and even the highly political CMAs are starting to have trouble ignoring it.
Just my thoughts, anyway. What say you to this list?
Who’s In: Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, Taylor Swift
Who’s Out: Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, Zac Brown Band
Who’s In: Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney
Who’s Out: Dierks Bentley, George Strait
Who’s In: Sara Evans
Who’s Out: Reba McEntire
The Civil Wars
Who’s In: The Civil Wars, Thompson Square
Who’s Out: Brooks & Dunn (historical moment!), Joey + Rory
The Band Perry
Little Big Town
Zac Brown Band
Who’s In: Nobody
Who’s Out: Nobody
The Band Perry
Who’s In: The Band Perry, Eric Church, Thompson Square
Who’s Out: Easton Corbin, Jerrod Niemann, Zac Brown Band (won)
Notes: Bryan and Young are both on their second nominations here, but for once there’s no obvious frontrunner. Thompson Square pick up the category-filler nom from Jerrod Niemann. This reminds me: where has Easton Corbin gone?
Blake Shelton, All About Tonight
Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party
Taylor Swift, Speak Now
Brad Paisley, This Is Country Music
Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give
Notes: Shelton’s is a low-selling EP. Uhhh.
Sara Evans, “A Little Bit Stronger”
Zac Brown Band, “Colder Weather”
Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
The Band Perry, “If I Die Young”
“Colder Weather” – written by Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, Levi Lowrey, and Coy Bowles
“Dirt Road Anthem” – written by Brantley Gilbert and Colt Ford
“If I Die Young ” – written by Kimberly Perry
“Mean” – written by Taylor Swift
“You and Tequila” – written by Matraca Berg and Deana Carter
Notes: Nice to see there are still some Matraca Berg fans out there amid the Brantley Gilbert ones. Interestingly, Swift’s first nomination in this category.
“As She’s Walking Away” – Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson
“Coal Miner’s Daughter” – Loretta Lynn, Sheryl Crow and Miranda Lambert
“Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson
“Old Alabama” – Brad Paisley with Alabama
“You and Tequila” – Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter
Notes: I’m troubled by the fact that “Don’t You Wanna Stay” is nominated for Single and “As She’s Walking Away” isn’t.
“Honey Bee” – Blake Shelton
“If I Die Young” – The Band Perry
“Mean” – Taylor Swift
“Old Alabama” – Brad Paisley featuring Alabama
“You and Tequila” – Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter
Notes: The worst Brad Paisley video ever to be nominated here, I think.
What can you say about a #1 country single with the word chassis in the first verse?
This is the only song from her last three studio albums that Twain didn’t have a hand in writing. That’s not a total surprise, as the “my love is like a car” metaphor is very “Mutt” Lange. It could’ve been recorded by Def Leppard or Bryan Adams just as easily.
But Twain’s sheer enthusiasm elevates it, and while it was easily the most pop-flavored hit from The Woman in Me, it might be a little too country for even Brad Paisley in 2011.
A couple yearning to rekindle the fire in their relationship? Classic country. One asking the other if he/she remembers the old passion and the other chiming in “remind me”? That’s pretty good, too – and genuinely sexy in a way neither Brad Paisley nor Carrie Underwood has ever been on record. There’s no doubt that this single was loaded with potential.
So why doesn’t it feel like the big event it should be?
Mostly because it’s trying too hard to be a big event. Paisley crowds out “Remind Me” with guitar licks and drums, and he and Underwood wail up a storm as it progresses, both sounding technically better than ever but obliterating the song’s smoldering sensuality. They’ve mistaken an “I Need You” for a “Don’t You Wanna Stay.”
There are a few of your typical too-cute Paisley details as well, like an underwhelming second-verse story and the use of “made out” in a song that doesn’t warrant such lyrical smirks.
The core components are still appealing enough, mind. But a little revision – and re-envisioning – might have made the difference between a pleasant summer hit and a career moment.
He was one of the first country artists I got into, but I’ve developed a sourness for Paisley over the years. With each successive album, his songwriting voice has tended to sound a little more self-impressed and a little less self-aware. “Ticks” is a nice exception to my ears, though. For once, Paisley seems to get that he’s playing the machismo creep, so a listener can take perverse pleasure in listening to him be creepy rather than balk at the fact that they’re expected to sympathize with him. It helps that it’s one of his cooler-sounding singles, too.
Maybe it’s because the Garth Brooks songs that annoy me the most are the ones where he tries to sing like Joel, or maybe it’s just that too many of his hits made the family mix tapes that made car rides a living hell. Either way, the man’s music has not worn well on my ears over the years. I love “My Life,’ though. It’s a philosophy I can really get behind, and it has that perfect balance of emotional detachment and simmering contempt.
I usually don’t hate music if it’s blatantly awful. That usually makes me love it. (I have especially great affection for the universally maligned “We Built This City” thanks to the efforts of Twitter queen Megan Amram.) What grates on me is the technically listenable stuff that is still, slyly, really bland and stupid. Travie McCoy offers some decent verses here atop an aesthetically pleasant track; but it all goes to wash if you try to digest the lyrics of Bruno Mars chorus, which earned extra hate-points for always tricking me into thinking “Santeria” was coming on the radio last year.
There are certainly more fundamentally offensive songs out there, but this one elicits from me inexplicable anger. From its pounding pseudo-rock arrangement to Aldean’s spitfire delivery (of ridiculousness like “honey-dripping honey from a holler in Kentucky”), everything about the song feels so aggressive. And if you’ve ever been subjected to the rap re-mix without at least a drink in your hand, you have my deepest sympathy.
It’s the most frustratingly condescending tribute to a wife since “Honey.” At least that Bobby Goldsboro classic was released before the women’s rights movement was in full swing. Sure, at least he doesn’t kill her off in the end, but is death really a worse fate when compared to your husband living for those little moments when you show what a stupid little woman you are?
I can digest Toby Keith’s angry anthem much easier than Worley’s patronizing piece of manipulation. Even though I’m just as relieved as anyone to have Bin Laden gone, this song, like few others, still gets my blood boiling.
This is going to be a really important show, you guys.
Entertainer of the Year: Taylor Swift
Top Female Vocalist: Miranda Lambert
Top Male Vocalist: Brad Paisley
Album of the Year: Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
Song of the Year: “The House That Built Me”
Single of the Year: “The House That Built Me”
Top Vocal Duo: Sugarland
Top Vocal Group: Lady Antebellum
Top New Artist: The Band Perry
Top Till You Drop:
Vocal Event of the Year: Zac Brown Band & Alan Jackson, “As She’s Walking Away”
Music Video of the Year: Miranda Lambert, ”The House That Built Me”
- – -
10:02 Well, all right, that was fun enough. Kinda. Thanks for playing along, y’all, and have a good night!
9:58 A shocking upset! As shocking as, like, one of those chewy Sweet Tarts.
Entertainer of the Year: Taylor Swift
9:56 Hey, how about next year we get James Taylor to come back and sing with the Dixie Chicks again? Yes or yes?
9:52 They segue into “Sweet Baby James.” At least this pairing makes musical sense.
9:48 Leeann: Zac Brown and James Taylor, Carrie Underwood and Steven Tyler, Jennifer Nettles and Rihanna? Is CMT testing for upcoming Crossroads episodes?
9:45 Was having some trouble with the site for a few minutes there. Now we’re up to Zac Brown Band doing a very cool “Colder Weather” with James Taylor.
9:41 Amazing how only a year and a half ago the idea of Miranda winning one of the really competitive awards still seemed like a pipe dream.
Top Female Vocalist: Miranda Lambert
9:36 “Love Gets a Hold of You” or something. It sounds okay – almost in the same you’re-gonna-miss-me-boy! vein as “Turn on the Radio,” though. I think we’re all ready for some more mature Reba now. Take a lesson from Martina.
9:34 Reba’s out to sing something or other. I just saw today that “If I Were a Boy” got yanked as a single; this must be the new one?
9:27 Darius Rucker singing “Music from the Heart” with a choir of various ages and developmental disabilities. Very passionate, touching performance.
9:25 Chris Young’s trying out the hatless thing.
9:25 Oh, for real? At least he acknowledged he has too many now.
Top Male Vocalist: Brad Paisley
9:22 I don’t know how I’m still awake through all this. I shouldn’t be saying such things at 9:23.
9:17 Leeann: Martina is worming her way back into my heart again. I’m a soft touch.
9:17 …Who just tweeted, “Holy crap, I’m singing.” Perfect.
9:14 Awesome. It does. This reminds me of Jeannie C. Riley, the spunky honesty of it. And I like to fantasize that she got some inspiration for that opening “honestly, I think I need a drink” line from Drunken Martina.
9:13 Martina’s coming out with “Teenage Daughters.” I really hope this translates well to stage.
Top Vocal Duo: Sugarland
9:10 Kevin: Naomi Judd: The answer to the age-old question, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
9:09 Leeann:Ronnie Dunn sounds so much like Brooks & Dunn. Go figure.
9:07 He looks and sounds like musical Jesus. I mean that in a complimentary way!
9:03 Ronnie Dunn’s coming up with “Bleed Red.” Excited for that, kinda. I think C.M. Wilcox is right and that it’ll work well as an award show performance even if the single itself is a little sleepy (to some of us).
8:56 Leeann: Good. Have Kristian introduce Nettles/Rihanna to show how secure he is about being put on the sideline all the time. We’re convinced.
8:55 True fact: The banner at the top of this post will light up and spin all through this Rihanna-Jennifer Nettles performance. Watch closely!
8:53 She interjects a bit of some song I should probably recognize but don’t, and then “I’ll Fly Away.” And she sounds real good.
8:53 I bet there are some Christian folks out there from Miranda’s life who are like, “We did not say that!”
8:52 A Miranda performance is usually my favorite part of an awards night. But it’s “Heart Like Mine.”
8:41 Or, as our pal Corey Parkman of Farce the Music just put it on Twitter, “I wonder what Sara Evans would sound like if she ever got over that sinus infection.”
8:38 The return of Sara Evans to the ACMs. Last performance I remember from her here was that severely pitch-challenged one of “Coalmine” the night she won Top Female years ago. She sounds better here, but still not up to many of her recorded performances.
8:35 I mean, seriously, y’all. “Need You Now” is the only reason Need You Now has sold like it has, and the album selling like it has is the only reason it’s getting this recognition. “Need You Now” won Song and Single of the Year at last year’s ACMs; couldn’t that have been enough?
8:31 IEIOF432IfffkDdk&*$#vdsadvfdjfpvfs >:(
Album of the Year: Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
8:28 Well, don’t think I was missing much. Such a shame – he truly would be one of the best male vocalists in the game if he had better taste.
8:25 We get a Blake Shelton performance. Don’t recognize the song.
Single of the Year: “The House That Built Me”
8:14 Jason Aldean doing the Colt Ford country-rap “Dirt Road Anthem” and it’s every bit as cool you would imagine. (That is, decidedly un-.)
8:09 Apparently their dad’s name is Steve Perry. I snickered harder than I should have.
Best New Artist: The Band Perry
8:07 Kevin: And my favorite of the 57 performances so far is…Taylor Swift. No one can ever accuse me of not having an open mind.
8:05 Kimberly Perry delivers the “well” in “If I Die Young” with way too much spunk. “Well! I’ve had just enough time. So if I do die – y’know, whatever!”
8:03 Whoops, apparently it’s a guitjo/ganjo. Whatever, it’s not like I’m a writer of music-related opinion articles or something!
8:00 Taylor Swift singing “Mean” and strumming the banjo, which is not how I’ve known anyone to play the banjo. Pretty cool scene, though – they’re in front of an old-timey house and the band’s all decked out in their Depression-era best.
7:55 Kevin: Not naming the songwriters for Song of the Year is an absolute disgrace.
[They announced it as "Miranda Lambert, 'The House That Built Me,'" though she's not the one who wrote it.]
Song of the Year: “The House That Built Me”
7:53 Finally, we get one: Song of the Year.
7:50 Eric Church doing “Smoke a Little Smoke,” the one single of his I really dig, with verve. BUT THERE STILL HASN’T BEEN A SINGLE AWARD.
7:45 Back from commercial, Keith Urban performing his newest hit, “Without You (Nicole Kidman)(Pt. 3)(Ballad Version).”
7:42 Leeann: Seriously? Still no award yet? What are we watching?
7:38 Dierks Bentley running laps around the arena to “Am I the Only One,” determined to make us like the unlikable.
7:36 Kevin:That’s what I wanted that song to sound like on the album.
7:35 I’ll say this: JNett still has the best stage charisma of any mainstream country star who isn’t Keith Urban.
7:32 Leeann: Half hour in and still no award yet at this…uh…awards show.
7:32 Sugarland’s here, Jennifer apparently with hair extensions, and they’re doing “Tonight.” Figured this would probably be the next single. Like Kevin, I’d like the recorded version if not for the head-cold-ish performance.
7:30 Well, that was fun. Good thing I gave up on the term “country music” meaning anything a few weeks ago!
7:27 Kevin: We’re officially down the rabbit hole.
7:27 They segue into “Walk This Way.”
7:26 Steven Tyler is really good at screaming awesomely and only ok at remembering the words to Carrie Underwood songs.
7:24 Two Soul Surfer ladies come out to introduce Carrie, who’s doing “Undo It.” WITH STEVEN TYLER! OK, I like this now.
7:20 Apparently Dr. Pepper’s current slogan is “There’s nothing like a Dr. Pepper.” Uhhhh.
7:17 Pleasant enough song (“Somewhere Else”), and he’s got that sweet Toby growl going.
7:16 Leeann: It’s nice to like Toby Keith music these days.
7:14 “ARE THEY READY?! DOES ZAC BROWN ENJOY THE FEEL OF HIS ASS IN THE SAND?!” Best Blake line of the night so far.
7:13 The celebrity cheap shots are coming hard and fast, though.
7:10 We are promised no Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan jokes. God? Is that you?!?
7:07 Celine Dion’s here now, and she’s VERY VERY EXCITED! I honestly can’t think of a better Vegas gate-keepeer, though.
7:07 Kevin: Since when did Alabama become a trio? What a poorly cropped picture, lawsuit or not.
7:06 It would be great if, instead of writing songs about how great the classic acts were, today’s artists just figured out how to measure up.
7:04 Leeann: Good. We get this disappointing Paisley song out of the way now.
7:04 “Old Alabama” now.
7:02 Cute-ish opening skit with Blake Shelton “rehearsing for his wedding night” by serenading a blond-wigged Reba with “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking.”
6:52 Leeann: John Rich is so much more tolerable when he’s with Big Kenny.
6:38 The JaneDear Girls just appeared onscreen. When are they un-appearing, I wonder?
6:33 Wynonna and Naomi Judd chilling with Suzanne Alexander now. Colorically speaking, Wynonna has become a human sunset.
6:31 Chris Young is now talking to Storme which means his voice is audible – yay!
6:26 On some red carpet somewhere, GAC’s Storme Warren just presented to Vocal Event award, inevitably, to “As She’s Walking Away.”
6:15 Dierks Bentley will be playing “Am I the Only One” tonight. Have fun, no one!
6:04 Super-jealous of The 9513′s sweet new live blog layout. Also: the smartness of their live-bloggers. Also: the fact that Brady and Brody Vercher are named thusly.
5:59 Red carpet time, woo!! I bet everybody’s totally wearing clothes this year.
Four generous hits collections were released in 2010, each one chronicling the entire career of a contemporary country music star. Individually, each double-disc set serve as the most expansive and thorough compilation for each artist. Taken together, they tell the story of country music over the last twenty years.
Alan Jackson 34 Number Ones
In the late eighties, Randy Travis did something that no other country star had done before. He became the top-selling country artist by a wide margin without making any musical concessions to pop or rock. In doing so, he tore up the old playbook. Suddenly, you could be a multi-platinum country artists without the added benefit of top 40 radio or accolades from the rock and roll press.
Thus began contemporary country music, the new paradigm that reached its commercial peak in the nineties, but has never come close to receding to its earlier status as a niche genre. A crop of young stars surfaced in 1989 and 1990, each one of them staking a claim to be the Haggard, the Jones, the Willie, the Waylon of their generation. Out of all of them, none struck a more perfect balance between artistic credibility and commercial viability than Alan Jackson.
Simply put, he is the most significant singer and songwriter of the past quarter century. So it’s no surprise that out of all of the country stars who’ve compiled #1 hit collections, Jackson’s set is the best, both in terms of overall quality and effectiveness in summing up an entire career.
Fact is, radio’s played nearly everything Jackson’s sent their way, and he’s demonstrated remarkably good judgment over the past twenty years. The highest of the high points – “Here in the Real World”, “Don’t Rock the Jukebox”, “Chattahoochee”, “Gone Country”, “Where Were You”, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” – aren’t just great records from their time period. They’re accurate representations as well, little time capsules that show Jackson as being centrally relevant to the genre while he was also making great music.
Today, with critical acclaim and commercial success becoming increasingly divergent pathways, 34 Number Ones serves as a powerful reminder that one need not sacrifice quality for radio airplay. Of the new tracks, Jackson’s cover of “Ring of Fire” doesn’t quite measure up, It’s certainly a competent reading, but Jackson’s already a legend in his own right. Just listen to “As She’s Walking Away”, the duet with Zac Brown Band that serves at the set’s bonus 35th number one. His mere presence elevates the track into greatness.
Tim McGraw Number One Hits
Jackson’s ascent into superstardom came at the peak of the new traditionalist movement. Tim McGraw got in just under the buzzer, breaking through a year before Shania Twain shifted the course of country music to a distinctively more pop sound. He’s since been able to maintain stardom by going with the flow of these changes.
At his best, few have been better than Tim McGraw, but Number One Hits documents his bookend years as a follower of trends. It’s the songs on either end of his hit run than are the weakest. Whereas Jackson has flirted with banality once in a while, McGraw has openly embraced it. He became a mega-star by alternating shoehorning the five-hankie weepfest “Don’t Take the Girl” between novelty songs like “Indian Outlaw” and “Down on the Farm”, all of which reek of the hat act herd mentality that was heading out of style in 1994.
But McGraw used his clout from those early hits to get access to better material, and his albums soon demonstrated a song sense that was unrivaled among the other new acts of the time, most of whom quickly faded away as pop ascended in the genre. The best of his biggest singles came over the course of the next decade. Classics like “Just to See You Smile”, “Please Remember Me”, “Angry all the Time” and “Live Like You Were Dying” were among the best songs on the radio.
For a while there, he could get just about anything into the top fifteen, but this collection focuses only on the chart-toppers. So instead of fantastic gems like “Can’t Be Really Gone”, “One of These Days”, “Red Ragtop”, and “If You’re Reading This”, this set features quite a bit of forgettable fare that hasn’t aged well. They may have topped the charts, but that doesn’t make “Not a Moment Too Soon”, “She Never Lets it Go to Your Heart”, and the particularly abysmal “Southern Voice” worthy of inclusion in a best-of set.
If they were able to suspend the concept to include a questionable dance remix of the #8 chart hit “Indian Outlaw” and the mediocre new hit “Felt Good on My Lips”, they might as well have just been more generous with the track listing and released The Very Best of Tim McGraw. His music has been far more compelling than this collection shows.
Dixie Chicks The Essential Dixie Chicks
The explosive crossover success of Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, and Faith Hill was in full swing in 1998, which left traditionalists hungering for a superstar alternative. In waltzed the Dixie Chicks, with a combination of musical credibility, traditional roots, and youthful appeal that instantly made them the darlings of the format. Over the course of two albums – 1998′s Wide Open Spaces and 1999′s Fly – they dominated radio, retail and the awards circuit.
Tracks from those two albums combine for fourteen of the thirty tracks of The Essential Dixie Chicks. All of the biggest hits are here, but chart success wasn’t the only determination for inclusion. Thank God for that, as less impressive top ten hits like “Cold Day in July” and “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” are left off, with the far more compelling “Heartbreak Town” and “Sin Wagon” in their place.
As good as their first two albums were, it was the 2002 masterpiece Home that truly solidified them as artists for the ages. Released at the height of O Brother mania, the timing couldn’t have been better for this acoustic album. “Long Time Gone”, “Landslide”, and “Travelin’ Soldier” all went top two, and the album swept the country categories at the 2003 Grammy Awards.
And then, the bottom fell out. Poorly chosen words about the president quickly overshadowed Home, and the princesses of country radio suddenly became pariahs, taking the burgeoning roots movement down with them. Radio slamming its door shut is what makes a hit-centered Chicks compilation impossible, and Essential Dixie Chicks wisely chooses to give equal representation to Home and its follow-up, the California country Taking the Long Way.
An excellent job is done of selecting the best album cuts from both collections, an especially difficult task with the latter album. Sure, it won five Grammys and sold well, but the platinum single “Not Ready to Make Nice” was the only real hit. Thankfully, we’re treated to gems like “Top of the World” and “Truth No. 2″ from Home and “The Long Way Around”, “Easy Silence,” and “Lubbock or Leave It” from Taking the Long Way.
And while a case could be made for some great tracks left off – “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”, “More Love”, and “Voice Inside My Head” come to mind – everything that’s here is essential listening. Then again, the Chicks could have randomly picked any 30 songs from the four albums represented here and still ended up with a great collection of music, so high has their standard of excellence been all along. How many other superstar country artists could do the same?
Brad Paisley Hits Alive
If the Dixie Chicks best represent the last gasp of lofty aspiration in mainstream country music over the past twelve years, Brad Paisley best represents the mediocrity the genre was willing to settle for. Rising to fame around the same time as the Chicks, Paisley was similarly touted as a traditional savior for the increasingly pop-influenced genre.
And for more than ten years, he’s lived up to the traditionalist part, rarely flirting with crossover sounds. Much like Alan Jackson, Paisley’s sound hasn’t changed much over time. But unlike Jackson, Paisley’s point of view hasn’t changed much either. He’s been releasing antiseptic, mostly dull radio fodder for most of his career, getting regular radio play with an endless stream of interchangeable love songs and party anthems.
Hits Alive attempts to assess his work to date, and it takes an odd approach. A disc of studio hits is paired with a disc of live recordings of his hits. Figuring out the guiding principle in song selection is near impossible. Some of his signature hits – “I’m Gonna Miss Her”, “Letter to Me”, “Waitin’ on a Woman” – appear only in live form. Songs that practically beg to be livened up, like “Ticks”, “The World”, and “Celebrity” – are only here in their studio incarnations. Bizarrely, “Alcohol” and “Mud on the Tires”, are presented in both forms.
The double dipping means early hits like “Who Needs Pictures”, “Wrapped Around”, “Two People Fell in Love”, and “I Wish You’d Stay” are omitted entirely. That’s a shame, because they’re all better than his string of condescending and slightly misogynist love songs that do make the cut, the worst offenders being “The World” and the jaw-dropping “Little Moments”, the latter providing a list of endearing traits that would be insulting if he was singing about his child, let alone his partner.
Thankfully, many of his best moments are included, most notably “Whiskey Lullaby” and “When I Get Where I’m Going”, two hits that have gone on to become genre standards in the years since their release. Plus, the live disc brings some unexpected treats. “Time Warp” showcases his stunning instrumental talent, while the hits “Water” and “American Saturday Night” truly do come alive on stage, making them sound better here than they did on the radio.
Of the four collections, Paisley’s may be the least impressive, but it’s still a decent representation of one of country music’s last superstars, and it speaks volumes about the creative holding pattern that still paralyzes the genre. Unless the spiritual successors to Alan Jackson or the Dixie Chicks come along, Paisley’s might be as good as it’s gonna get on country radio.
Earlier this year, a discussion with a colleague of mine revealed a mutual affinity for country music. It was a typical conversation that I have with fans that are around my age. We fell in love with the music about twenty years ago, don’t think it’s quite as good as it once was, but can find a lot of things to like from just about any era, including the current one.
So in the 2010 version of making a mix tape, I offered to load up her iPod with a whole bunch of country music. A week later, she took me to dinner as a thank you. We started talking about the music that I’d passed on to her, and she told me that she was listening to the iPod while mowing the lawn. Suddenly, a song came on that made her cry. Full-out cry, mind you, not just a tear or two.
So I ask if it was “Love, Me”, or maybe “Where’ve You Been”, or something similarly tragic. She was almost embarrassed as she told me that it was the old Anne Murray hit, “You Needed Me.”
Now, there are a few possible reactions to this. I suspect for many or even most, it will be either befuddlement or outright derision. But me? I totally understood why that song would have such a strong impact, and I can best describe it in one word: Sincerity.
It’s the bane of the cynic’s existence, and of many critics as well. You don’t see Anne Murray pop up on too many lists when discussing the greatest country artists of all time, or even the greatest pop-country singers of all time, even though she’s definitely both. Ditto for Kenny Rogers and my once future wife Olivia Newton-John, who also fit well into both categories.
But there are some artists who exude sincerity and still are treated with reverence, like Loretta Lynn and Alan Jackson. What makes them different? I think it’s the added perception of authenticity that differentiates them from the artists above.
Take Dolly Parton as a case study. Rare is the critic or country music historian who doesn’t speak highly of both her pre-1976 and post-1999 output, where her music was firmly grounded in her mountain roots. But her pop era – roughly 1977-1986 – is widely maligned. The sincerity is there all the way throughout her career, whether it’s delivering the brilliant working class social commentary present in both “In the Good Old Days” and “9 to 5″, or when she’s just being hopelessly maudlin, be it with “Daddy Come and Get Me” or “Me and Little Andy.”
I think that she gets less credit for that period because there’s a sense that she’s being something that she’s not, that the authenticity is lacking. When you think someone is being inauthentic in their sincerity, it’s hard for some to embrace them. I think that I’m in the minority in that I don’t care much if someone is authentic, so long as they’re sincere.
Where things fall apart for me are when I perceive authenticity without being able to sense the sincerity in the performances. This is my major issue with many of the more traditional artists today. I think Jamey Johnson, Gretchen Wilson, and Brad Paisley are completely authentic in their music. They are who they say they are, and such. But I have trouble getting into them because they don’t come off as genuinely sincere.
It’s hard to articulate this, but to use Paisley as an example, he often sounds to my ears like he’s emotionally divorced from what he’s singing. The brain is plugged in, but I don’t feel the heart. I loved, loved, loved “Letter to Me” because his voice cracked with emotion. I felt the sincerity that I don’t feel when I hear “Anything Like Me” or “Little Moments.”
Meanwhile, Carrie Underwood can rarely do wrong with me because she drips with sincerity, something that was prevalent even during her embryonic Idol days, but has really come into play with her writing so much of her material. “Change” is my favorite song she’s done so far, not just because I fully agree with the message, but that she sings it with such sincerity. Does she live out the message in her own life? I have no idea. But her performance is so powerful to my ears that it being her authentic life story is as irrelevant to me as the fact that Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon aren’t really a death row convict and a Catholic nun, respectively.
Sincerity over authenticity, if I have to choose. Both are great to have, but the former is more essential than the latter in the music that I love the most. It may be a meaningless distinction in the end, but it’s the only explanation I can come up with for me usually liking songs much better by great singers than by the original songwriters, and for Laura Bell Bundy getting so much more play on my iPod than Taylor Swift, the most genuinely authentic teen star ever. Or at least since Lesley Gore.
With that all said, how about we listen to some Anne Murray? She’s awesome.
I don’t think there’s ever been a song that I’ve wished remained an instrumental as much as this one, as the gorgeous instrumentation, especially the fiddle, is the very best example of what the title claims.
But alas, our reigning Entertainer of the Year insists on tackling the title with lyrics, and it doesn’t end well. It doesn’t even begin well, with the ridiculous notion that country music is where you need to go to hear that Jesus is the answer, as it’s not afraid of rubbing folks the wrong way by saying so in a song. Michael W. Smith and countless Winans have made a career out of doing so without ever recording a country song.
Has Paisley managed to live an entire life in the south without ever stumbling upon Contemporary Christian or Gospel Music? Of course he hasn’t. He’s just decided to do another tired country music spin on American exceptionalism.
We’re not the only country in the world that has freedom. By some measures, we might not even have the most of it. But it makes us feel good to sing along to a song that pretends we’re the only home of the brave and the only land of the free.
This at least accomplishes national solidarity, so it can serve a meaningful purpose. What purpose does it serve to convince people that country music is the only place – the only place! – where we can find songs about cancer and Jesus? And Mama? Don’t forget Mama! Given that Kanye West wrote a better Mama song than any country composition this side of “No Charge”, Paisley best not perform “This is Country Music” on the MTV Awards.
Given that the song quickly devolves into drinking on the weekend and hating on your boss by the second verse, it’s probably a waste of time to over-think this, even if it was Paisley’s insistence that has us going all meta in the first place. By the time he gets all serious again, this time via a soldier not coming home from war, Paisley has weighed down his impassioned defense of country music with so many genre stereotypes that he ends up being a witness for the prosecution.
If you happen to be curious about country music and want a song that also demonstrates “this is country music” without eliciting the knee-jerk response, “Why should I care?”, then I suggest you check out Sugarland’s “Very Last Country Song” instead. It captures the same sentiment attempted here more effectively, and without the nonsensical “My genre can beat up your genre” undercurrent.