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 will append a “-” onto the grade as a means of acknowledging the fact that the Bruce Robison original is overall superior. That said, Tim McGraw’s hit recording of “Angry All the Time” is an excellent record in its own right.
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…)
This edition of iPod Check is all about those great songs that you love which aren’t that well known. Put your iPod or favorite playlist on shuffle, then list the first ten songs that come up which weren’t singles or widely heard album cuts.
Bonus points for a little blurb with each song!
My list is after the jump.
1. Shania Twain, “Whatever You Do! Don’t!”
Only four of the sixteen tracks from Come On Over weren’t released as singles for one market or another. It features the creative use of fiddles that would become so prominent on Up!
2. Todd Snider, “Maybe You Heard”
From the Kris Kristofferson tribute album The Pilgrim, it’s a powerful challenge to friends who aren’t friends in need: “Don’t you condemn him. Leave it to strangers. You oughta know to give him a hand if you can.”
3. Bonnie Tyler, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain”
Creedence Clearwater Revival as arranged by Jim Steinman? As the opener of the album that features “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, it’s surprisingly effective.
4. Willie Nelson, “Rainbow Connection”
A lot of his covers don’t work – “Time After Time”, anyone? But this one does, taking a Kermit the Frog standard and elevating it to the league of “Imagine.”
5. Bruce Robison, “Can’t Get There From Here”
Why Tim McGraw or Keith Urban haven’t covered this yet is beyond me: “I’m on a road that’s going nowhere, looking for a place that I belong. The wind’s pushing me in all directions, and none of them look like home.”
6. Tim McGraw, “Tickin’ Away”
Time is running out, and not just because closing time is drawing near.
7. Johnny Cash, “I See a Darkness”
This time the friend in need is there, but that’s not enough to halt his desperation from spiraling out of control.
8. Lorrie Morgan, “Greater Need”
“It seems like I want you around me a little more than you want to be, so I guess I’m the one with a greater need.” Killer.
9. Joe Diffie, “Good Brown Gravy”
They didn’t call him Joe Ditty for nothing. But this one’s a riot!
10. Madonna, “‘Til Death Do Us Part”
From her post-divorce classic Like a Prayer, this is one of the most nakedly revealing songs I’ve heard. “The bruises they will fade away. You hit so hard with the things you say. I will not stay to watch your hate as it grows. You’re not in love with someone else. You don’t even love yourself. Still, I wish you’d ask me not to go.
#20 “Not Ready to Make Nice”
It’s easy to label this as a transitory response of a song, whose quality is stamped by context and time, but to do so is to undermine its carefully crafted layers of universal emotion. Anger is only the outer coating of the song – beneath it lies a tender-to-the-touch complex of feelings: pain and disgust, confusion and resolve, stubbornness and defeat. “Not Ready to Make Nice” may always recall a certain unfortunate episode in country music history, but its theme – that sometimes there’s a price to pay for standing up for what you believe – is timeless. – Tara Seetharam
#19 “Probably Wouldn’t Be this Way”
A striking portrait of grief that alternates between phases of desolation, disillusionment and gratitude. Rimes’ interpretation of the lyrics is chillingly precise. – TS (more…)