It’s hard for me to not like a song that uses “Funky Cold Medina” and “Strawberry Wine” as adjectives.
But mission accomplished, thanks to a plodding mid-tempo groove that never gets out of first gear, and a grating vocoder effect that should’ve been left behind with “Felt Good on My Lips.”
Come on, Tim McGraw. You’re Tim McGraw. You took Bruce Robison and Rodney Crowell songs to number one. Can’t you find some other should’ve been hits from days gone by, instead of recording weak sauce like this?
Tim McGraw used to be the gold standard. I’m looking for that guy, that guy, that guy.
Written by Mark Irwin, Jimmy Slater, and Chris Tompkins
2013 turned out to be a banner year for new music, full of powerful songwriting, inspired collaborations, and truly cohesive albums that would rank among the best releases in any given year. Many of this year’s top twenty would’ve ranked much higher in other years, and many of us writers couldn’t even include all the works we deeply enjoyed this year on our personal lists, making our collective list worthy of the heartiest endorsement we could ever give.
Here’s to a great 2013, and a greedy wish that 2014 will be just as wonderful on the music front. As always, share your thoughts and personal favorites in the comments.
#20 Rubberband Charlie Worsham
Individual rankings: #7 – Tara; #12 – Leeann
Like Chris Young two years ago, Worsham’s voice is a commodity that instantly elevates the new artist to an orbit above the male radio regulars. His is warm and cleanly expressive, lending itself best to songs that nurture his upper register, like the jaunty “Want Me Too,” haunting “Someone Like You” or those invigorating opening bars of “Could It Be.” If only life imitated “Nashville” and its fictional stars’ uncomplicated brand of pop country, Worsham might just be the next Luke Bryan and “Rubberband” –the album’s finely produced, genre-bending title track– his next big hit. - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Rubberband,” “Someone Like You,” “Young to See,” “Could it Be”
#19 Silver Bell Patty Griffin
Individual rankings: #5 – Kevin; #13 – Jonathan
It was a banner year for Patty Griffin fans, as two new studio albums were released. Silver Bell is the oddity of the two, in that it was recorded thirteen years ago and languished in the vaults (and on cherished bootlegs.) For those who have discovered Griffin during her past few years as an Americana goddess, Silver Bell was her final attempt at a mainstream album for A&M Records, and it is fantastic. She finds a happy medium between the rawness of her debut album, Living with Ghosts, and the hard edge of its follow-up, Flaming Red. Two of the best tracks, “Truth #2″ and “Top of the World”, would become two of the best tracks on Home, the landmark Dixie Chicks album from 2002. Emmylou Harris joins in on harmony for “Truth”, but the true revelation is the original recording of “World”, which is darker and more haunting than the excellent renditions that the Chicks, and Griffin herself, would later record. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Top of the World”, “One More Girl”, “Mother of God”
#18 Honky Tonk Son Volt
Individual rankings: #4 -Sam; #18 – Jonathan
As one of the defining bands of alt-country, Son Volt have rarely taken a straightforward approach to the country genre, but they go full-on Bakersfield on Honky Tonk. It’s a move that suits the band well, as the laid-back arrangements on tracks like “Tears of Change” and “Hearts and Minds” balance frontman Jay Farrar’s trademark intensity. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Hearts and Minds,” “Bakersfield,” “Seawall”
In many instances, the replacement of a lead vocalist has spelled disaster for a band’s career. In the case of the SteelDrivers, it’s the beginning of a whole new chapter as Gary Nichols ably fills the shoes of the departed Chris Stapleton. But great singers and great pickers still need great songs, and from the haunting opener “Shallow Grave” to the piercing melody of album closer “When I’m Gone,” Hammer Down sets a consistent standard that never wavers. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: ”Hard Way Home,” “Keep Your Heart Young,” “Heart’s Content”
#16 My Favorite Picture of You Guy Clark
Individual rankings: #3 – Ben; #10 – Leeann
Guy Clark has already secured his place in country music history – not to mention a place in the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame – but on his first new studio effort since 2009, the songwriting icon is still finding ways to keep things fresh. On My Favorite Picture of You, Guy Clark addresses current events (“Heroes,” “El Coyote”) as well as personal loss (the achingly gorgeous title track, a tribute his late wife Susanna), his absorbing lyrics delivered through a wise and weathered voice which feels like that of an old friend. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “My Favorite Picture of You,” “El Coyote,” “Heroes”
#15 The Highway Holly Williams
Individual rankings: #3 – Tara; #7 – Leeann
Producer Charlie Peacock treads a dangerous line on The Highway, with arrangements so sparse they’d easily deflate a lesser artist’s work. But he and Williams work exceptionally well together on her third album, leaning on her character-filled voice to fill in the spacious canvas. The album’s themes are heavy and often morose, but Williams doesn’t weigh them down; instead, she approaches them with weathered sensibleness, using only the ragged edges of her voice to convey the underlying drama. As for that family of hers, if there’s a role for them on The Highway, it’s only to help sketch out the small, poignant details of her characters’ stories, like in the vivid history of her maternal grandparents’ eternal love in “Waiting on June.” - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Drinkin’,” “The Highway,” “’Til It Runs Dry,” “Waiting on June”
It was unlikely that the Pistol Annies would match their self-titled debut, a bullet of an album that flew in the face of everything manicured, polite and conventional in 2011. Their sophomore album, then, is a little less of a shock, but just as much of a raucous hoot. The ladies are still challenging societal norms (“Being Pretty Ain’t Easy”), lamenting and –surprisingly often– conceding to small-town marital discord (“Unhappily Married”), and, of course, dancing with their demons (“I Feel A Sin Coming On”). The breadth of their combined talent and mission is almost uncontainable, so misfires are expected (“Girls Like Us”); in the end, though, the album cements the trio’s place as the genre’s bravest truth-spitting chicks. - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “I Feel A Sin Coming On,” “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Unhappily Married,” “Dear Sobriety”
#13 High Top Mountain Sturgill Simpson
Individual rankings: #1 – Jonathan; #2 – Sam
Far too often, traditional-minded country acts fetishize the genre’s past and end up sounding like mimics of great artists, rather than becoming great artists in their own right. Sturgill Simpson, an acolyte of Waylon Jennings’ outlaw period, adopts a too-country-for-country throwback style on his debut, High Top Mountain. But the deceptively shrewd perspective that informs “Railroad of Sin,” “Water in a Well,” and “Old King Coal” is modern through and through, making Simpson one of country’s most exciting new voices. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Railroad of Sin,” “Hero,” “You Can Have the Crown,” “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean”
Not only is Patty Griffin a very deservedly respected songwriter of intelligent and often gut wrenching songs, she has what many sing-songwriter types don’t have–a sublime voice that pierces right through one’s heart and soul. Join those elements together and it’s no wonder that her first album of original songs since 2007 is at least as good as anyone would dare to hope it would be.
From the sweet cover of “Mom and Dad’s Waltz” to the powerful “Not a Bad Man”, Griffin’s album is a collection of masterful and intelligent songs that will make you think and want to think some more. - Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Mom and Dad’s Waltz”, “Irish Boy”, “Not a Bad Man”
Once again, Alan Jackson sets out to do a vanity project and it ends up as good as his best mainstream work ever was. His foray into bluegrass yields wonderful results, both in the form of compelling new material (“Blue Ridge Mountain Song”, “Mary”, “Blue Side of Heaven”) and well-chosen covers (“Wild and Blue”, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”) Like Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard before him, Jackson’s crossover from country to bluegrass shows just how little distance there is between the two, at least when the country artist in question has deep roots in the first place. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Blue Ridge Mountain Song”, “Knew All Along”, “Mary”
The Mavericks reunion may have been one of the more unexpected comebacks in recent country music history, but it should have come as no surprise that In Time was as excellent as it was. “That’s Not My Name” showed their classic country influences, but tunes like “Lies” and “Come Unto Me” blended in some rock, soul and Latin feel too. “Come Unto Me,” with its horn section and Raul Malo’s searing vocals, was the sexiest song in country music in 2013. - Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Come Unto Me”, “Lies”, “That’s Not My Name”
Another quirky Norah Jones project, eh? Sounds about right; guess it’s been about six months since the last one. Oh, she got the guy from Green Day in on it? Well, that’s…huh. What? They’re covering an Everly Brothers album of traditional country and folk songs from the 50′s? They’re just, like, taking time out of their busy schedules to lovingly coo through a bunch of covers of the Everly Brothers’ covers, perhaps to help pass on the Everlys’ important legacy to younger generations, or perhaps just because they’re fans and love music and know Starbucks will sell it regardless? Who do these recording artists think they are — artists? - Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Long Time Gone”, “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail”, “Kentucky”
It may not be typical for a steel guitarist to receive top billing alongside a legend of Vince Gill’s caliber, but it’s certainly warranted in this case as the comforting whine of Paul Franklin’s pedal steel proves the perfect match for Gill’s distinctive tenor. It’s a delightful musical history lesson as the two lovingly cover ten beloved Owen and Haggard classics. Their takes are neither stale recreations nor scattershot attempts at modernizing and reinventing – rather, Bakersfield feels like a simple, unaffectedly sincere love letter to a unique and important era of country music. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Together Again,” “I Can’t Be Myself,” “Nobody’s Fool But Yours,” “Holding Things Together”
#7 Old Yellow Moon Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell
The ease and friendship between Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell is undeniably palpable on their first full duets album, which is a huge part of what makes this project a blow out success. While the songs are mainly covers of their own songs, as in the sprightly “Bluebird Wine”, the new interpretations are fresh and feel like brand new songs, as is also the case with the covers of other people’s work, as proven by the sublime “Dreaming My Dreams.”
From the jaunty opener of “Hanging Up My Heart” to the gorgeous closer of the title track and all points in between, the entirety of Old Yellow Moon is a masterful collaboration between two brilliantly talented old friends. - Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Hanging Up My Heart”, “Dreaming My Dreams”, “Bluebird Wine”, “Here We Are”
The first duets album by the Tim & Faith of Texas country lands, and the world immediately becomes a slightly better place. It’s an LP filled with smart Robison writing, golden Willis drawl, and enviable marital cuteness. True love is out there, guys. Listen to “Dreamin’” and sigh along with me. - Dan Milliken
The best thing about Jason Isbell’s richly drawn stories from the underbelly of America is that he manages to humanize some quite despicable people without trying to make them likable at the same time. There are very few anti-heroes to be found here. Their stories are compelling, but you still root for the good guys and gals, and it’s rarely Isbell that is singing in their voice, preferring the challenge of bringing the often loathsome to life.
Which isn’t to say that’s the only role he plays, as there are hints of redemption in some of the best numbers. The man haunted by the “Songs that She Sang in the Shower” might just treat the next one right, and there is nobody I enjoyed getting to know better this year than Andy in “Elephant”, a barroom louse who didn’t stick around when the girl was at her best, but is now by her side as she’s dying of cancer, singing her classic country songs and sweeping her hair up off the floor after putting her to bed. – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Elephant”, “Songs that She Sang in the Shower”, “Live Oak”
Kacey Musgraves set some mighty high expectations for herself to live up to with the universally acclaimed dark horse hit “Merry Go ‘Round,” but her major label debut release delivers in full. Same Trailer Different Park announces the arrival of one of country music’s most distinct and potent new voices, marked by keen-eyed observation, maturity beyond her years, and a refreshing willingness to tell it like it is.
The dawning optimism of “Silver Living” and “Step Off” is made all the more meaningful by the fact that Musgraves never shies away from themes of heartache, despondence, and frustration. But even the bitterest moments are sweetened by accessible melodies, comforting arrangements, and a down-to-earth vocal style.
In a genre that has long prided itself on being “real,” Musgraves has become one of a precious few mainstream artists to actually live up to that ideal, and by so doing has laid bare just how contrived the format has become. The fact that Same Trailer Different Park found the mainstream audience it richly deserved feels like an answered prayer. Don’t blow this now, country radio.- Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Merry Go ‘Round,” “Keep it to Yourself,” “Follow Your Arrow,” “It Is What It Is”
A beautifully drawn character sketch, Like a Rose showcases Ashley Monroe’s gift for using authentic first-person detail to give depth to her distinctive, unconventional narratives. The persona Monroe projects over the course of the album’s brief song cycle is one of a young woman who has been scarred by the events in her past but who uses those scars as the jumping-off point for compelling stories rather than letting them define who she is or who she aspires to be. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Like a Rose,” “Two Weeks Late,” “Used,” “The Morning After”
#2 Spitfire LeAnn Rimes
Individual rankings: #1 – Tara; #2 – Dan, Ben; #3 – Leeann; #8 – Kevin, Jonathan
Rimes subtitled Spitfire as the “truth in no particular order,” an apt description for an album whose truth shines like a prism, flashing different, nuanced colors at us with each twist and turn. If Spitfire is meant to narrate Rimes’ messy history –her “truth” as so many have come to define her by–, it succeeds; but, the gifted artist that she’s become, Rimes knows that truth is more than intentions and events and aftermath. It’s in the intimate honesty that spills out from the smallest corners of thought, whether from places of regret or passion, shame or fearlessness, or in those boundless grey areas in between. Spitfire has it all, packaged in the most colorful, intriguing performances of the year. - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Borrowed,” “I Do Now,” “Who We Really Are,” “What Have I Done””
#1 12 Stories Brandy Clark
Individual rankings: #1 – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Ben; #2 – Tara; #4 – Jonathan; #5 – Sam
Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories was shopped around to several record labels, but none of them would commit to taking on the album, even the ones that admitted that it was the best album they’d heard in years.
Since it’s impossible to reasonably imagine why label executives who loved the album wouldn’t jump at the chance to put Clark on their roster, perhaps they assumed that the album was just too smart and good for the mainstream music scene they put their dollars behind. While this is certainly a simple, and maybe even naive, view of things, other explanations simply evade me. Fortunately, however, somebody did believe in Brandy Clark’s music and the album was organically promoted as an independent release.
Even after listening to the album at least a zillion times since first receiving a promo copy well before its official release, it is a challenge to find the proper words to appropriately describe this nearly perfect debut album. Clark’s sharp, clear eyed songs are supported by crisp and satisfying productions and solid, warm vocals. Without judgment, but with intelligence, she observes and explores the tougher parts of life such as unfaithfulness, divorce and various forms of mental anguish; all the while keeping the album accessible.
As much as can and should be written about this album, the most direct thing to be said is that this was the clear favorite of the very diverse Country Universe staff, with most of us selecting it as our Number One album and none of us ranking it below number five. The rest of this list shows how far apart we often are on tastes; Brandy Clark is one artist we can all get behind. - Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Pray to Jesus”, “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven”, “Take a Little Pill”, “Hungover”
If this year’s singles list leaves you with a familiar feeling, it’s not your imagination. For the first time in Country Universe history, an artist has topped the year end list for two years in a row, and there are plenty of repeat appearances from CU favorites. But there are some fresh faces too, including some promising new singer-songwriters and inspired collaborations from artists we already liked an awful lot by themselves.
As always, share your thoughts and personal favorites in the comments!
#20 “Hangin’ Up My Heart” Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
Individual rankings: #3 – Leeann; #20 – Kevin
What a way for Emmylou and Rodney to kick off their much anticipated duet project! The bouncy tune shows the power duo in fine form both in voice and spunk and signals what will turn out to be one of the finest albums of the year. - Leeann Ward
The most Allan has sounded like his old self in seven years. You can’t blame him for dialing back his intensity after the dark, heartbreaking Tough All Over, but it’s a real treat to hear him snarl out a great country weeper again.- Dan Milliken
“Railroad of Sin” Sturgill Simpson
Individual rankings: #5 – Jonathan; #8 – Sam
It’s hard to pick out a highlight from Simpson’s High Top Mountain, but this song would have to be in the running. Though just a shade over two minutes in length, “Railroad” roars, rumbles and packs in more energy and attitude than whole albums from Blake Shelton or Luke Bryan. For those starving for pure, unadulterated country music, Simpson’s debut album was one of the great joys of 2013. - Sam Gazdziak
#17 “9,999,999 Tears” Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison
Few singers are as adept as Kelly Willis at making their misery sound downright joyful. Even when she’s telling her ex that a lifetime of crying might suffice to get over him, Willis sounds like she’s determined to enjoy, either out of spite or pure masochism, each and every one of the tears she has in her future. - Jonathan Keefe
“Salt” Lori McKenna
Individual rankings: #3 – Dan; #5 – Kevin
“You ain’t worth the spit in my mouth when I scream out your name.” McKenna minces no words whatsoever as her steady, rumbling rage builds into a righteous evisceration of a selfish lover. Masterfully chosen details convey the full depth of the heartbreak in a few simple lines. Staggering. - Dan Milliken
#15 “Bible on the Dash” Corb Lund featuring Hayes Carll
Individual rankings: #5 – Jonathan; #8 – Sam
Lund and Carll share a similar twisted sense of humor, so this song about using a Bible to sweet-talk their way through police stops is right up their alleys. The video, featuring Carll as a Texas state trooper and Lund as a Mountie, is worth seeking out as well. - Sam Gazdziak
The tight vocals of Norah Jones and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong are both surprising and stunning. From their collaborative project that covers the entire Everly Brother’s Songs Our Daddy Taught Us album, Jones and Armstrong brilliantly recreate the magic of the Brothers’ familial harmonies without actually being family themselves on the album’s first single, “Long Time Gone.” The song is bright and hard core country, not to mention it can be replayed a million times over without feeling stale. - Leeann Ward
A throwback to the uncomplicated pop-country sound of the ‘90s –part Vince Gill, part Clay Walker, part Diamond Rio– that still sounds undeniably current, thanks to one of the freshest opening hooks in recent memory. - Tara Seetharam
“If I Loved You” Delta Rae featuring Lindsey Buckingham
Delta Rae can, at times, skew a little too far into “show choir” territory, but “If I Loved You” isn’t one of those times. Their intricate harmonies, dramatic dynamic shifts, and outsized vocal performances are entirely in service to a song about how deeply it can hurt when, “It isn’t you, it’s me,” is the truth and not just a cop-out. - Jonathan Keefe
This oddity is something that could only have come from the pen of Don Henry, along with co-writer Phillip Coleman. While the women in country music are more likely to be singing about married circus performers and cross-dressing politicians, Lambert is the best-suited to sing about a rebellious child determined to make her own way in life. - Sam Gazdziak
Something of a close cousin to his classic “Livin’ on Love”, the storyline of this young couple is so similar that it’s quite the sucker-punch when they don’t get their happily ever after. As the protagonist falls to his knees, begging God not to take his love away from him, Jackson lets that moment linger in our hearts and minds as the bluegrass band takes over for a short time. When he returns with the heart-wrenching image of our widowed hero sitting on the front porch all alone, with only memories to keep him company, it’s a hurt that returns with every listen, as unquenchable as grief itself. – Kevin Coyne
“Drinkin” is far more than its simple title. While cleverly connecting the end to the beginning, the song explores the slippery slope of excessive drinking and its ravaging effects on a family. It starts with Williams pleading for understanding for why her mate is “drinking like the night is young” and ends with her own version of personal understanding as she realizes that she has been driven to go down that same distructive road. - Leeann Ward
#8 “Gasoline and Matches” LeAnn Rimes featuring Rob Thomas
Rimes’ astounding growth as a vocal interpreter is hardly limited to her ballads – on “Gasoline and Matches” she rocks out like never before, tearing into the deliriously catchy Buddy and Julie Miller song with an uninhibited spitfire (pun intended) of a performance. Rob Thomas proves an ideal match for Rimes’ energy and intensity, the two displaying an explosive chemistry that perfectly fits the song’s central metaphor. Finish it off with an aggressive, driving production, complete with a searing Jeff Beck guitar solo, and you have one of the most unabashedly addictive songs of 2013. - Ben Foster
This lonely man’s lament is perhaps most compelling because it captures him at the very moment that he’s discovering his loneliness, as he has clearly been a satisfied loner up until this point. Isbell’s sharply drawn characters are a signature of his writing, and his encounter with those dancing ladies of the evening in the second verse, who won’t even take his money, is vividly real and sympathetically endearing. - Kevin Coyne
LeAnn Rimes’ career of late has been all about her choices. “Borrowed” may touch upon the decisions she’s made in her private life, but what’s far more interesting about the single are the choices she makes in her nuanced vocal performance. The way she breaks her voice into the high note as she sings the word “borrowed” at the end of each chorus, how she drops into her lower register whenever she’s admitting her status as the proverbial Other Woman, and the clarity and resolve in her delivery of the line, “I don’t want to give you back”: They’re all choices of a truly masterful storyteller. - Jonathan Keefe
The unintentionally anti-revenge song, “Stripes” is clever and funny. While she would like to commit a crime of passion as a consequence for her lover’s cheating ways, she decides against it because “there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion.” But even when the silly punch line wears off, Clark’s endearing performance and the addictive rhythm section will prevent the song from descending into lame novelty status. - Leeann Ward
Country music’s done well by love: It understands it, respects it and celebrates it without adornment. But few country songs have tapped into as exquisitely –as spiritually, even– as “Sober,” an arms-raised surrender that dares to mirror the intoxication of love. There’s not a hint of restraint in “Sober’s” fabric, no self-consciousness in its confessional chorus or lilting harmonies. Sweetest of all is the abandon in Kimberly Schlapman’s performance, so mesmerizing that you can’t help but feel a little mind-altered yourself. - Tara Seetharam
Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark dominate the top five of this list as writers and performers, and “Mama’s Broken Heart” is a further reminder how compelling their writing is, even in the hands of other performers. Lambert’s manic energy and signature edge is often paired with over the top material, so it’s awesome to hear her tear into a relatively grounded breakup song. You know if she wrote this, she wouldn’t be just cutting her bangs with those rusty kitchen scissors. The more realistic approach taken here allows for some sly generational and feminist commentary, another signature of both Musgraves and Clark, and Lambert, too, when she’s at her best. - Kevin Coyne
Surprised? You’re probably not surprised. Musgraves topped our singles list last year with the sharp “Merry Go ‘Round,” and if anything, “Follow Your Arrow” one-ups it, offering an uplifting antidote to the malaise that “Merry Go ‘Round” warns of: go forth and live happily, whatever the word may mean to you.
There’s a little more to it, of course. The song is historically huge in its warm embrace of sexual diversity and religious tolerance, and its commentary on body image issues isn’t far behind. It rides a plucky, acoustic groove that dares to believe modern country music can sound like John Prine. It looks at life the way life really is, complicated and controversial, and does so with concise phrasing and a working sense of humor—why, that sounds like a classic country song to me. - Dan Milliken
On their beautiful new album Cheater’s Game, husband and wife Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison get together for the first time to deliver some moving music, including several covers of now-classic country songs. Among them is the Razzy Bailey-penned “9,999,999 Tears.”
In 1966, Bailey recorded “9,999,999 Tears” with Atlantic Records, backed by an all-star cast that included Billy Joe Royal, Joe South, and Freddy Weller. Bailey’s original version of the song is more pop than country, and the harmonies resemble the music of The Righteous Brothers. Ten years later, Dickey Lee made the song his own, giving the tune its now familiar pop- country treatment, and a new twist. As he’s repeating the refrain—”I’ve got 9,999,999 tears to go/And then I don’t know if I’ll be over you”—at the very end of the song, he modulates to a high note on the final word (“you”), thus making the song his own and setting up any subsequent artists covering the song to be measured, in part, by how well they can make this shift at the song’s end. Lee’s version romps off with hard-driving lead guitars and whining pedal steel, with Ronettes-like backing vocals that give the song a pop sensibility.
Willis and Robison’s new version of the song makes it identity clear from the very beginning with fiddles replacing the guitars of Lee’s version. In her raw, intense voice, Willis belts the first two bars almost a cappella before the fiddles kick in, and then we’re off to the races. It’s not just the fiddles that set this tune apart from the earlier versions; it’s also Willis’ voice, so full of yearning, desire, sorrow; she takes us into the heart of a broken relationship here. When Bailey and Lee sang this song, it was as if they were singing a camp song (999 bottles of beer on the wall) for the little
emotion they dredged from the words. When Willis croons the words—“The sun didn’t shine this morning/ It’s been raining the whole day through/ Suddenly without warning, you found somebody new/ That’s when the first tear came, falling from my eyes/ I’m beginning to feel the pain, seeing nothing but cloudy skies”—we ache with her, knowing that just as the tears cloud her judgment and her day, no amount of tears can wash away the hurt that this broken heart feels. Willis delivers the pain of uncertainty and vulnerability in deep ways on this tune; she gets inside the song, using the lyrics and music to take us inside her heart. And, she nails that high note at the song’s end.
Willis and Robison have us cryin’ at the end of their tender and affecting version (it’s a cryin’ song, after all), palpably capturing the heartbreak at the very center of the song.
I’m sure there are relatively few artists who would have listened to Robison’s non-charting, self-written 1998 single and thought, ‘Hey, that sounds like a hit!’ But “Angry All the Time” was a classic instance of McGraw finding a hit in the most unlikely of places, and giving mass exposure to an achingly beautiful, yet underrated composition.
Though not quite a raw as Robison’s original recording, McGraw’s version is surprisingly light on bells and whistles. Beginning with the sound of hushed acoustic strumming, the arrangement picks up force as the song progresses, but the focus of attention remains the story of a marriage gradually unraveling. Varying emotions are conveyed, including frustration, desperation, and disillusionment, particularly in stinging lines such as “What I can’t live with is memories of the way you used to be.”
It all comes through in McGraw’s evocative performance, showcasing the layers of subtlety his voice had picked up in the years since his “Indian Outlaw” days, while wife Faith Hill’s plaintive background vocals add a further layer of pathos. The couple injects an angst into the lines “God, it hurts me to think of you, for the light in your eyes was gone/ Sometimes I don’t know why this old world can’t leave well enough alone” that is heartrending. It’s a top-notch performance by a pair of contemporary country music’s most vibrant talents.
In the late nineties and early 2000s, Tim McGraw was known as one of country music’s finest selectors of song material, as well as one of its finest interpreters of lyrics. Great records like this are the reason for it.
I’ve always liked Kix as a singer, so I was happy to see that this single exists. He’s got one of those modest-but-charming Everyman voices, the kind that makes every song feel like a conversation with your ol’ pal.
He also sounds positively thrilled to flex it for us again, which is just infectious. Listen to how he relishes every note of “New to This Town,” like he doesn’t want waste a moment of this reintroduction. Love that! I love that.
Just want to hear it on a different song. This one’s got some good bones – the main chorus cadence (before it becomes a crutch), the theme of wishing you could rewrite a history gone wrong. But the first verse about the younger man doesn’t set up a compelling launching pad for the rest of the song, and I don’t know if I buy Kix Brooks with this sound – pulsing verses, big rock chorus. Plus, the subject matter invites comparison to Tim McGraw’s dazzling “Old Town New,” and there aren’t a lot of songwriters who can go head-to-head with Bruce Robison or Darrell Scott, much less the two of ‘em together.
So as an appetizer, I can’t say it kix ass but…….! (I’m done writing forever.)
Written by Kix Brooks, Marvin Green & Terry McBride
Husband and wife Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison turn in an unusually gritty version of this sultry Christmas classic. It’s not the smoothest version that’s out there, but it’s compelling and a little different, which should only be expected by the Robisons.
Sam’s Pick: Marah (featuring Felicia Navidad)
I’ve always liked the combination of flirtation and desperation between Felicia Navidad and Marah’s Serge Bielanko. The light-heartedness between the two helps to gloss over the inherent creepiness in the song (did he really just spike her drink to keep her from leaving?).
If history had played out the way Woodrow Wilson planned, we’d be celebrating the 92nd Armistice Day today. When first proclaimed a national holiday, Wilson declared the following:
To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.
If the Great War had been the last war, we wouldn’t be celebrating what is now known as Veterans Day. We also wouldn’t have an incredible legacy of songs about soldiers in the annals of country music.
Here are five classics that celebrate those who have served our country and the ones who love them, along with one tale that has a returned soldier that’s not being loved quite enough.
“Dear Uncle Sam” by Loretta Lynn
from the 1966 album I Like ‘Em Country
Lynn was on the cusp of superstardom when she released this top five hit. Penning a letter to Uncle Sam, she pleads for the safe return of her husband. She sings, “I really love my country, but I also love my man.” His return is not to be, as the song closes with a heart-wrenching recitation of the telegram informing her that he won’t be coming home.
“Galveston” by Glen Campbell
from the 1969 album Galveston
Campbell’s finest performance is a homesick ode for the lady and hometown that he left behind. The sweeping strings and stirring vocal evoke the waves of heartache that are crashing up against his heart, much like the waters of Galveston Bay crash along the shores he once walked with her.
“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition
from the 1969 album Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town
Mel Tillis penned this massive hit for Rogers and his band, originally recorded by country artist Johnny Darrell, who took it into the top ten in 1967. The narrator lays in bed, paralyzed from his stint in “that crazy Asian war.” He is helpless as Ruby gives in to desire and heads into town looking for the love he can no longer provide, and he’s left there wishing she’d only wait until he died for her to step out on him.
“Soldier’s Last Letter” by Merle Haggard
from the 1971 album Hag
The spiritual predecessor of Tim McGraw’s “If You’re Reading This.” Mama sits at home, reading a letter from her son overseas. He’s writing from a trenchmouth, hoping his mother won’t scold him for his sloppy handwriting the way she did when he was a kid, tracking mud into the house because he didn’t wipe his feet. He promises to finish the letter when he returns from his next battle, but the letter that arrives back home is incomplete.
“Travelin’ Soldier” by Dixie Chicks
from the 2002 album Home
The modern benchmark for soldier songs. Bruce Robison’s original versions are both worth seeking out, and can be found on his self-titled 1996 album and his 1999 set, Long Way Home from Anywhere. But the acoustic instrumentation that surrounds Natalie Maines’ plaintive delivery makes the Dixie Chicks version the definitive one.
“Welcome Home” by Dolly Parton
from the 2003 album For God and Country
In a brilliant feat of songwriting, Parton weaves together four stories: a soldier returning home, a soldier dying overseas, Christ’s death and resurrection, and Parton’s own hope and longing for eternal salvation.
Robison is best known for piercing ballads like “Travelin’ Soldier” and “Angry All the Time,” but he can rock a lighthearted uptempo with the best of them, too. “Twistin’” will have you shaking around till you’ve ‘bout ripped your pants and broken your bones, just like the groovy tune’s narrator.
And so we come to the end. The top of our list includes a wide range of artists singing a wide range of country music styles. Thematically, these entries are diverse, but what they all have in common is what has always made for great country music. They are all perfectly-written songs delivered with sincerity by the artists who brought them to life.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #25-#1
Smoke Rings in the Dark Gary Allan
1999 | Peak: #12
Being deeply enamored of someone can make it easy – even appealing – to forfeit your own well-being. This single’s sunny tone reflects the persistent affection running through its protagonist, but its story demonstrates the heartbreak to which such unmeasured selflessness leads. – DM (more…)