Last year, I counted down my twenty-five favorite Christmas songs. This year, it’s time to do the same with my favorite country Christmas albums. Feel free to add your own favorites in the comment section.
SHeDaisy, Brand New Year
This is not a typical, conservative country Christmas album. SHeDaisy spices things up by not only including originals, but rearranges the classics to make an unpredictable, unique Christmas album that stands out from the pack.
Dolly Parton, Home for Christmas
This is an incredibly cheesy Christmas album. As only Dolly can do, however, it’s at least delightfully cheesy.
Charlie Daniels & Friends, Joy To the World: A Bluegrass Christmas
This album flew under the radar this year, but it’s a wonderful bluegrass album with a few famous friends. Daniels even steps aside to allow his guests to sing while only accompanying them. Jewel steps up with an impressively country vocal on “Blue Christmas” and Kathy Mattea offers a rollicking version of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.”
John Denver and the Muppets, Christmas Together
I grew up with this album. On the strength of nostalgia, I’d put it at the top of this list, but for the sake of being reasonable, I’ll settle for this ranking. Who doesn’t love the Muppets, anyway?
John Cowan, Comfort and Joy
John Cowan’s Comfort and Joy is a new release, but its acoustic production and Cowan’s clear voice is instantly appealing. He interprets some classics, but also includes some worthy originals and lesser-known songs. The sprightly “Christmas Everyday”, the thoughtful “Little Match Girl” and the gospel “Good News” provide welcome depth to this Christmas project.
Mindy Smith, My Holiday
Mindy Smith adeptly covers well-known standards on her Christmas album, but her original inclusions are what really stand out here, particularly “Follow the Shepherd Home” and “I Know the Reason.” With guest appearances from Alison Krauss, Thad Cockrell and Emmylou Harris (not to mention Smith’s own beautiful voice), My Holiday is one of the most outstanding mixes of originality and tradition on this list.
Loretta Lynn, Best of Christmas…Twentieth Century Masters
This is a collection of Loretta Lynn Christmas songs. It’s my favorite traditional country Christmas album.
Emmylou Harris, Light of the Stable
If you enjoy Harris’ bluegrass album, Roses in the Snow, and her Live At the Ryman, you’ll likely enjoy this acoustic-based Christmas album as well. It has a live, relaxed feel to it. While it doesn’t necessarily sound big-budget, it is still a well-crafted Christmas album.
The Tractors, Have Yourself A Tractors Christmas
The Tractors are infamous for their cringe-worthy novelty song, “Baby Likes To Rock It”, but they made an excellent Christmas album nonetheless. Their blend of swing and shuffle makes for a crisp album that I love to hear every year. I enjoy the entire album with the exception of their Christmas twist on “Baby Likes to Rock It.”
Lee Ann Womack, A Season for Romance
Lee Ann Womack is successful in conveying a romantic vibe on this album that suggests just that. With her easy southern drawl, Womack knows her way around a gorgeous Christmas melody. Her fun side should not be ignored, however, as her version of “the Man with the Bag” is easily the superior track on the album.
Travis Tritt, A Travis Tritt Christmas: Loving Time of the Year
Tritt rocks on songs like “Winter Wonderland”, adds a bluesy twist to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, waxes nostalgic on “Christmas in My Hometown” and reverently sings “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Nevertheless, he keeps Christmas in perspective as he philosophizes on the title track and, possibly naively, proclaims it to be the “most loving time of the year.”: “I wish I could bottle up this feeling/Pass out a little everyday/’Cause all the scars of pain have started healing/And troubles of this world just fade away…”
Dwight Yoakam, Come on Christmas
Dwight’s signature quirky vocal style does not disappoint on this Christmas album. He does some standards and a few originals. His bluesy version of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” just may be the only version of that song that I like. Among the originals, the dysfunctional “Santa Can’t Stay” and the album’s sensual title track are the highlights of the project.
Gene Autry, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Other Christmas Classics
Like Bing Crosby, Gene Autry’s name is simply synonymous with Christmas music.
John Prine, A John Prine Christmas
Prine’s rough, unpolished voice does not try to navigate beloved classics that conjure up feelings of warmth and frivolity. Instead, he does what works best for him, which means writing songs that reveal insightful observations of real life. As a result, A John Prine Christmas is darker than a typical Christmas album.
Alan Jackson, Let It Be Christmas
While Alan Jackson’s first Honky Tonk Christmas album is great, this one was recorded to appease his mother who requested a more traditional-sounding record. This one is especially good when hosting guests with mixed music tastes. Backed by a big band and orchestra, Jackson’s smooth voice navigates these traditional tunes with ease. Jackson’s original composition, the title track, is superb enough to stand with the revered classics.
Martina McBride, White Christmas
Martina McBride made a safe Christmas album with all familiar songs, but she still managed to deliver an album that’s engaging and among the best of its kind. And as one might expect from McBride, she knocks “O Holy Night” out of the park.
Toby Keith, A Classic Christmas
Toby Keith shows his generosity at Christmas time by making two Christmas albums (one of religious classics and the other of secular classics) and packaging them together for one low price. As a skillful interpreter, he treats these classics with both reference and fun as appropriate, with “Little Drummer Boy” receiving the coolest laid back production that I’ve ever heard on it.
Lorrie Morgan, Merry Christmas from London
With the London Orchestra, Morgan is in fine voice and keeps up with the power accompaniment quite well. This is a beautiful, straightforward album that includes many classics and a sweeping version of “My Favorite Things.”
Randy Travis, An Old Time Christmas
This Christmas album is exactly what one would expect from Randy Travis. If you like Randy Travis music and you like Christmas music, this one doesn’t disappoint. Highlights include his version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, Meet Me Under The mistletoe” and “Old Time Christmas.”
Kathy Mattea, Joy for Christmas Day
Kathy’s warm, soothing voice is meant for Christmas songs. She sings some standards along with some awesome originals. The stand out tracks are the gorgeous “Straw Against The Chill” and the infectious “Unto Us A Child Is Born.”
Garth Brooks, Beyond the Season
Garth’s first and best Christmas album sounds a lot like Garth Brooks music of the early nineties. Even the classics get the Brooks treatment, including a soulful version of “Go Tell It On A Mountain.” The highlights include but aren’t limited to “The Friendly Beasts” (in which he enlists the help of some of his songwriting friends), “Unto You This Night” and Buck Owens’ “Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy.”
George Strait, A Classic Christmas
Strait has as many Christmas albums as he has decades in the country music business. This album is far superior to the other two, however. While all of the songs are classics, he has recorded them with rootsy productions to match his warm vocals. Highlights include “Jingle Bells”, “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and “Oh Christmas Tree.”
Clint Black, Christmas With You
This album consists of all original songs composed by Clint Black himself. Most of it contains Christmas through the eyes of children, including “Slow As Christmas”, “Milk and Cookies” and “The Coolest Pair.” It’s fresh, fun and joyous, just as Christmas should be.
Patty Loveless, Bluegrass And White Snow: A Mountain Christmas
As a follow up to Mountain Soul, Patty Loveless delivers a soulful bluegrass Christmas album that radiates Christmas warmth while injecting moments of festive frivolity as well. Appearances by Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Rebecca Lynn Howard and Jon Randall are not necessary to strengthen this already masterful Christmas album, but they certainly help the celebration in a special way. (For more on this album, read a review by guest contributor Stephen Fales.)
Pam Tillis, Just in Time for Christmas
Most of the time, I want to hear warmth on a Christmas album. As is the case with many of my favorites, I like to be able to imagine listening to Christmas music by a cozy fire (though I don’t have a fireplace) and a nice mug of hot chocolate. With Tillis’ album, my imagination does not have to stretch very far, because it commands such images with its tasteful, jazzy production and Tillis’ naturally pleasant voice. This is clearly a country Christmas album, but it also manages to blend country elements with other traditional components that result in a perfect hybrid of torch and twang.
A guest contribution from Country Universe reader Zack Jodlowski.
When I first came across country music back in the eighth grade, I automatically gravitated towards the female artists of country music. When I heard the romp-stomping performance of “I’m Gonna Take That Mountain,” I thought “I have to hear more!”
Reba McEntire’s music has been such a lifesaver for me, that four years after my mom died, I found new found strength within me that allowed me to make peace with her death. It says a lot for a teenager to relate so strongly to the lyrics of Reba McEntire songs. Reba has been my favorite artist of all time, and she’ll most likely remain that for as long as I live.
Reba McEntire has been the heartbreak queen, an entertainer, and a superstar; at times she doesn’t make music choices that are spot-on, but her ability to deliver a song with an emotional tinge in her voice is all but rare in the music business, and with this ability she lifts a song up to another level. Reba also finds a way to relate to her audience with her music, whether it be helping someone through tragedies or inspiring people to continue to chase their dreams. Reba’s ability to adapt to the changing times and to continue to make herself relevant to the new country music generations is one that transcends the biases on radio that are established against females and the elder men and women of country music.
It was hard to narrow Reba’s extensive catalog down to twenty-five songs, and hard not to include some of her other great songs, but in the end I’ve managed to pick my twenty-five personal favorites.
For My Broken Heart, 1991
Truly heartbreaking. Bobby kills his spouse, causing hatred from his son to be thrust upon him, but in the chorus we find he does this out of love (he didn’t want his spouse to suffer any longer). His son later realizes his father’s intentions and realizes “He still missed his mama, but he’d missed his daddy too.” This is one of the rare Reba McEntire co-writes found in her catalog.
Rumor Has It, 1990
Reba captures the story of a woman thrust into prostitution at a young age by her mother in an iconic performance, but the woman is not ashamed or angry; she knows that her mother had to save her from a life of desperation and despair. (more…)
One of my earliest musical memories is singing along to the Judds’ Rockin’ With the Rhythm album as a child in the car. Unfortunately, the world’s most famous mother-daughter duo was forced to end their career early in 1991 when Naomi was diagnosed with hepatitis. To this day, however, their catchy songs still get plenty of “spins” on my iPod.
Even if Wynonna had never pursued a solo career after the Judds, her place in country music’s history would have been secure. However, I for one am so happy she did continue to sing and make music after her mother’s retirement. Her voice has a distinct personality, yet her catalog is eclectic. You never really know what to expect when Wy releases a new album – except that it will most likely be good.
However, beyond her music (which you will read about below), being the woman in a poster on my teenage bedroom wall and being my first autograph (scored by my grandmother when the CMA Music Festival was still called Fan Fair), I have a great deal of respect for Wynonna the person. She devotes countless hours of time to charities such as YouthAIDS and faces potential scandals and her personal struggles with remarkable candor and humor, all the while sharing the gift of her voice with us.
from The Other Side (1997)
We’ve all been there or know someone who has. You can’t help loving someone, even if you know they’re bad for you. Wynonna’s voice and singing style capture the emotions and feelings of pain that go along with it. One of the Judds’ later singles from Love Can Build a Bridge that is often overlooked, “One Hundred and Two”, is similar in spirit and comes highly recommended.
from Tell Me Why (1993)
With cryptic lyrics co-written by Sheryl Crow, this pop nugget has an almost mystical quality to it.
from The Other Side (1997)
Wynonna’s voice is in fine form on the closing tune from her 1997 album. It glides comfortably over the lyrics and a strumming guitar. A love song filled with promises, it is a wish that, from time to time as love evolves, you will be surprised by how new, exciting and powerful it can still be. Maybe Wynonna even viewed this as a love song to her children.
from Her Story: Scenes from a Lifetime (2005)
The title says it all in this one. This rockin’, defiant anthem is her last Top 40 hit to date.
“Woman to Woman”
from Tammy Wynette Remembered (1998)
Wy’s soulful, sultry take on a classic, from the First Lady of Country Music.
from Sing Chapter 1 (2009)
To celebrate her 25th anniversary in the music business Wynonna released a stellar collection of covers (Her take on Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Dionne Warwick’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart”, in particular, are worth seeking out.). Here the master interpreter takes on the project’s title cut and lone new song, written by the great Rodney Crowell.
“Girls With Guitars”
from Tell Me Why (1993)
Mary Chapin Carpenter penned this ode for all the women who’ve played their guitars instead of pursuing law school and medicine (even you, Taylor Swift). An empowering anthem like this makes me miss the 90s which was a much better decade for women in country music than the last ten years have been. Lyle Lovett sings background vocals.
from Skynyrd Frynds (1994)
The Holy Grail of rock songs (Dolly Parton’s take on “Stairway to Heaven” notwithstanding.). Taking on this epic, iconic anthem is a daunting task, but Wynonna makes it work. It’s hard not to be entranced by the way her voices wraps around the guitar. For another fine example of Wy’s ability to effectively tackle rock songs, track down her version of Dire Strait’s “Water of Love” from the Judds’ River of Time album.
“Heaven Help My Heart”
from Revelations (1996)
Co-written by Australian pop star Tina Arena, it’s no coincidence this is one of Wynonna’s most pop sounding songs. I’m betting the gusto of her strong voice almost blew the roof off the studio the day she recorded this earnest plea for love. My favorite part of this almost six minute song is when she hums her way into the third line of the second verse.
from Someone Like You (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (2001)
Wynonna had a hand in writing this mid-tempo, moving dedication to her sister Ashley. Here’s hoping we all find someone in life that we love and respect enough to sing this to.
“No One Else On Earth (Club Mix)”
from Collection (1997)
Wy’s signature about love’s ability to crack even the toughest of nuts. This particular mix may sound a little dated, but I like it because you can definitely feel the 90s country (my favorite era)/line dance vibe.
“That Was Yesterday”
from Tell Me Why (1993)
With her signature sly growls and purrs, this bluesy track (written by mother Naomi) is perhaps the best example of Wynonna’s range. It is a scathing done me wrong number that warns against crossing Wy. The nefarious cackle she gives when her man gets what he deserves lets us know that this is a new day and that… was yesterday.
“A Bad Goodbye”
from No Time To Kill (1993)
Wynonna has had a number of great duet partners in her career since going solo (Kenny Rogers, John Berry, Michael English, Tammy Wynette), but none as commercially successful as her pairing with Clint Black. This classic, sad country duet came together as a result of the Black & Wy tour and their voices compliment each other well. A great song made perfect the second you hear Wynonna’s voice enter.
from Tell Me Why (1993)
With lyrics like “When you hit rock bottom, you’ve got two ways to go: straight and sideways… Straight up is my way,” “When you get down to nothin’, you’ve got nothin’ to lose,” and “A dead end street is just a place to turn around,” this song is more inspiring than any motivational poster I’ve ever seen.
“It’s Never Easy to Say Goodbye”
from Wynonna (1992)
The stories of Jimmy and his mom, Julie Rae and her dad and other lost friends morph into a gospel-esque final verse that would fit right in at church. It was later covered by Kenny Chesney on his 1996 album Me and You.
from Disney’s Lilo and Stitch Soundtrack (2002)
I defy you not to shake your hips when listening to Wynonna’s excellent, fun take on the King’s classic. There’s nothing G Rated about this hot ditty.
“Can’t Nobody Love You (Like I Do)”
from New Day Dawning (2000)
This beautiful, piano laden ballad is both soft and sexy and would fit in comfortably on AC radio stations.
“All of That Love From Here”
from Wynonna (1992)
With a prominent mandolin and strong imagery provided by the details, this tune has an almost dreamlike quality. Lyrics about mama and chasing dreams probably took on a significant autobiographical aspect for Wynonna as she was striking out on her own for the first time in her career at this point. (“Sometimes I Feel Like Elvis” from What the World Needs Now Is Love is another example of a song that feels like it could have been written by her.)
“What the World Needs Now”
from What the World Needs Now Is Love (2003)
Some may say the lyrics are clichéd but I find that this song just proves how a sincere, simple message can remain true. I remember this track coming on my iPod one day when I was running on a treadmill and watching a closed captioned CNN report about a school shooting. It put a lump in my throat and brought a tear to my eye.
“She Is His Only Need”
from Wynonna (1992)
This three act story song (reminiscent of the Judds’ “Young Love (Strong Love)”) is the sweet tale of Billy and Bonnie. It served as Wy’s solo debut single and her first number one.
“O Come O Come Emmanuel”
from A Classic Christmas (2006)
Like Celine Dion’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” and Martina McBride’s “O Holy Night” before it, Wynonna’s version of this Christmas standard has now become the definitive version in my book. Wy exercises restraint and bravado at appropriate levels in the right spots. Essential December listening. Also worth checking out during the holidays are “Let’s Make a Baby King” and “Ave Maria”.
“Come Some Rainy Day”
from The Other Side (1997)
You can’t help but be taken back to your childhood and then high school years when listening to this song, even if your experiences aren’t exactly the same as those painted in the lyrics. A gorgeous reminder to remember our dreams. Simply stunning.
“Is It Over Yet”
from Tell Me Why (1993)
Wynonna captures the pain and heartache of breaking up in this lush ballad. Piano, strings and her voice convey an illustration more powerful than even the lyrics suggest. If she’s not going to cry, I just might. A similar song also worth downloading is the smoldering “Don’t Look Back” from Revelations.
“I Want to Know What Love Is”
from What the World Needs Now Is Love (2003)
Our vocal powerhouse’s tour de force. Wynonna really lets loose on this number and shows us what she’s capable of. She’s never sounded better and with Jeff Beck assisting on guitar, listening becomes a downright religious experience. This is no longer Foreigner’s song. It belongs to Wynonna now.
“When I Reach the Place I’m Going”
from Wynonna (1992)
In a morbid sort of way, I’ve always known what song I want played at my funeral. (To be fair, I’m not the only one. My mom has long stated that she wants Willie Nelson’s “What a Wonderful World” played at hers.) Although brief (clocking in at less than three minutes), this song is in the vein of some of the Judds’ greatest spiritual hits (Think “I Know Where I’m Going”.) and in fact, features background vocals by Naomi. Written by Emory Gordy, Jr., it was later covered by his wife Patty Loveless on 2005’s Dreamin’ My Dreams.
After Part 1 and Part 2 , we’re wading further into the sea of mediocrity.
The Worst Singles of the Decade, Part 3: #30-#21
Terri Clark, “Dirty Girl”
Double entendres are a lot more enjoyable when the naughty meaning is the real one.
Jamey Johnson, “The Dollar”
Real kids don’t talk like this.
Garth Brooks & Trisha Yearwood, “Love Will Always Win”
This treacly ballad is the nadir of Trisha’s career and one “It’s Midnight Cinderella” away from being Garth’s as well.
Darryl Worley, “Have You Forgotten?”
Featuring more straw men than a Wizard of Oz audition.
Clint Black, “I Raq and Roll”
“Have You Forgotten?” without all the nuance and subtlety.
Shania Twain and Billy Currington, “Party For Two”
Proof positive that spoken dialogue can ruin a song before it even begins.
Martina McBride, “God’s Will”
He was dressed as a bag of leaves? That’s his costume? Hey, at least she didn’t kill him off in the last verse.
Brooks & Dunn, “Play Something Country”
There are so many poorly written female characters in Brooks & Dunn songs, it’s hard to pick just one to represent them all. But I’ll give the nod to this one, simply because it has her howling the title to a melodic hook that’s a blatant rip-off of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Shut Up and Kiss Me.”
Jason Aldean, “Johnny Cash”
The “country star as song name” trend hasn’t yielded anything worthwhile, but at least “Tim McGraw” and “Kristofferson” have some tenuous connection to their titular song. “Johnny Cash” is just shameless name-dropping.
Gretchen Wilson, “Red Bird Fever”
In retrospect, this should’ve been a huge red flag that Wilson wasn’t built to last. My personal favorite moment of this St. Louis Cardinals shout-out comes in the chorus, when she sings “Let me get a big ‘Go Cards!’ from the Red Bird fans like me. Go Cards!” and the backup singers answer back, “Hell yeah!” because they couldn’t be bothered to change the “Redneck Woman” backing track.
Clint Black burst onto the country music landscape with the famed Class of ’89, as one of the group’s leading members. With his neo-traditionalist sound, he caught people off guard with his uncanny channeling of his hero, Merle Haggard.
As time passed, we would quickly learn that Black was his own man as he earned two triple Platinum albums, four Platinum albums and one gold album. Moreover, he would soon establish his own sound, which the country music audience was more than willing to accept.
Ten Essential Tracks
“A Better Man”
From the 1989 album Killin’ Time
It is impossible not to include Clint Black’s first single in his Starter Kit. Not only is it a great song from a seminal album, it sprung to the top of the charts and introduced people to a voice that eerily resembled that of Merle Haggard’s.
From the 1989 album Killin’ Time
Black was known for his clever wordplay, which showed up in “Killin’ Time” with “This Killin’ time is Killin’ me.”
“Put Yourself in My Shoes”
From the 1990 album Put Yourself in My Shoes
This bluesy song pleads for understanding and forgiveness in a failed relationship. He boldly proclaims: “Put yourself in my shoes/Walk a mile for me/I’ll put myself in your shoes/Maybe then we’d see/That if you put yourself in my shoes/You’d have some sympathy/And if I could only put myself in your shoes/I’d walk right back to me.”
“Burn One Down”
From the 1992 album The Hard Way
This is just a cleverly written song all around. It demonstrates Black’s intriguing poetic ability.
“A Bad Goodbye” (with Wynonna Judd)
From the 1993 album No Time to Kill
As Clint seems to do very well on his duets, he leans into this emotional song with full force. Of course, Wynonna Judd is always a force to be reckoned with, but both of them aptly capture the complicated emotion of loving someone but no longer being in love.
“No Time to Kill”
From the 1993 album No Time to Kill
In this dobro and fiddle laden tune, Clint revisits the theme of killing time. This time, he determines that there’s no time to kill.
“State of Mind”
From the 1993 album No Time to Kill
Clint’s harmonica chops are displayed on this catchy song, especially on the album version. The song is built around the simple, yet factual, observation: “Ain’t it funny how a melody can bring back a memory/Take you to another place in time/Completely change your state of mind?”
“Untanglin’ My Mind”
From the 1994 album One Emotion
Can you imagine a song like this being played on today’s country radio? What’s more, can you imagine a Merle Haggard co-write reaching the top five on today’s country charts? Apparently, both were possible in the mid nineties. Those were the days, weren’t they?
“Still Holding On” (with Martina McBride)
From the 1997 album Nothin’ But the Taillights
Clint Black isn’t immune from veering away from the neo-traditional sound, especially toward the latter half of his career. This is a straight pop country ballad done well, particularly thanks to killer vocal performances by both Black and Martina McBride.
“Something that We Do”
From the 1997 album Nothin’ But the Taillights
Clint extols the simple truth that love is a verb: “It’s not just something that we have; it’s something that we do.” At the time of this song’s release, I was pretty bored by its simple melody. It wasn’t until my adulthood that I truly understood the sentiment.
Two Hidden Treasures
“Our Kind of Love”
From the 1997 album Nothin’ but the Taillights
Clint has a version of this gorgeous song with Carolyn Dawn Johnson, but this rootsy version featuring Alison Krauss is superior.
“Hand in the Fire”
From the 1999 album D’Lectrified
This whole album is a gem that was somewhat overlooked, though it still reached gold status. As the album title cleverly indicates, this is his version of an unplugged project. He reworks some of his old hits and adds some originals as well. This is one of the standout originals, which is a fun, matter-of-fact, declaration of love.
Our readers have clearly responded well to our Back to the Nineties features this month. (Fret not, there are more on the way.) Part of the reason is that so many of you, like myself and Leeann, first discovered country music in that decade.
This isn’t too surprising, as the nineties helped establish country music as a genre with widespread appeal. The suburbanization of once-rural America reached its apex, and at the same time, CMT deeply penetrated the cable market. For you newbies, the channel was 24-hour videos back then, with remarkably democratic video rotation.
A clip in heavy rotation would only be seen two more times a day than one in light rotation. This is the reason both Mutt Lange and Sean Penn discovered Shania Twain through her “What Made You Say That” clip, which was played extensively on the channel despite the song stalling at #55 at radio.
The New York country radio station back then would do a “Country Convert” feature every morning. A radio listener would call in and say what song converted them to country music. Newbies to country music back then had a religious zeal to them, and would work very hard trying to convince others to fall in love with the music.
In the spirit of that “Country Convert” feature, I’d like to ask all of you about your country music firsts. I imagine many of us will have answers concentrated in the nineties, but if yours are from another decade, share them anyway!
Here are the questions:
What was the first country song that you remember loving?
What was the first country album that you bought with your own money?
What was your first country concert?
What was the first country song that you remember loving?
I liked a lot of the older stuff that my parents listened to, like Johnny Horton and Conway Twitty, but it was always my parents’ music. One night, we were watching a TV variety show called Hot Country Nights. I think we had it on because my mom’s favorite, Ricky Van Shelton, was performing that night. Out came Pam Tillis, singing “Maybe It Was Memphis.” I just had never heard anything like it before, and I was instantly smitten.
What was the first country album that you bought with your own money?
I remember buying Pam Tillis’ Put Yourself in My Place and Lorrie Morgan’s Something in Red on the same day. I bought both on cassette. If I recall correctly, I listened only to Side 1 of each tape for a very long time.
What was your first country concert?
Somewhere in New Jersey in 1992: Clint Black, Billy Dean and Aaron Tippin. It was Black’s tour to support The Hard Way. I remember that there was a complicated set for Black’s performance, something with falling rocks.
The past two decades have only brought eight winners in the CMA Male Vocalist race, with only two of them – Toby Keith and Clint Black – winning only once. Compare this to the Female Vocalist race, which has brought twelve winners during the same time frame, though even that race has become more streaky of late, with Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood combining for seven victories in the past eleven years.
Is it time for an overhaul in the Male Vocalist race? Yes and no. There’s no denying that some of the multiple nominees/winners over the past nineteen years remain the genre’s strongest male voices. Still, there’s room for some others at the table. The problem is that there are so very few of the genre’s male artists that are genuinely at the top of their game. Even most of the men listed below have had weak singles this year.
Still, if I picked the five nominees for the 2009 CMA Male Vocalist of the Year, they would be:
If Johnson earns fewer than five nominations at this year’s CMA Awards, I’ll be shocked. In fact, I think he’ll earn six, with the surprise nomination being in this category. These aren’t predictions, though, so I’ll state that while I’m not particularly a fan of Johnson, his success at retail with a traditional project that has only received airplay for one single is darn impressive. Along with Brad Paisley, he’s one of only two artists I’ve listed that were determined by genuine merit, not process of elimination.
The genre’s most consistent radio act and the reigning champion for the past two years. In a stronger year, I would think it’s time to move on from acknowledging him in this category and consider him more for Entertainer of the Year, but he’s still the presumptive favorite in this race. At the very least, he deserves another nomination.
Too soon? Possibly. But replace his name with other candidates – say, Dierks Bentley, Jason Aldean, Gary Allan, Rodney Atkins, or Blake Shelton – if you think they made better music this year.
It’s hard to make the call about which perennial favorite – Alan Jackson or George Strait – deserves a shot this year, especially since neither of them are likely to contend for the win. “Sissy’s Song” is better than any of Strait’s singles this past year, but all of Strait’s are better than Jackson’s other two – “Country Boy” and “Good Time.” Seeing “I Still Like Bologna” sent to radio puts me firmly in Strait’s corner, whose “River of Love” and “Troubadour” brought me listening pleasure this year.
I don’t think that there’s a stronger singer in consistent rotation on country radio, even if his material has been slight this year. A case could be made for Tim McGraw or Toby Keith getting this slot instead, but they’re dealing with the same problem: weaker material than they’ve generally been known for.
The following is a guest contribution by Country Universe reader Tad Baierlein.
When Dan Seals died of lymphoma last Wednesday, a great deal of the press coverage centered on his days as “England Dan” in the soft rock duo England Dan and John Ford Coley. Seals’ country career, though more successful for a longer period of time, seemed to be treated as an afterthought.
Many of the obituaries mentioned Seals’ biggest country hit, “Bop”; hardly an accurate representation of his years spent in country. Now, it’s perfectly justifiable to glance at a person’s career highlights for a newspaper obituary, but I think that a great deal more attention should’ve been paid to Seals’ death within the country music community. I would like to contribute this little appreciation to one of my favorite country artists.
“The Banker” Rebel Heart, 1983
For two years following the split of England Dan and John Ford Coley, nothing seemed to be going right for Seals. First off, he recorded two solo soft rock albums just as that sound was going out of favor. Aside from one single ekeing its way into the Adult Contemporary charts, the albums were considered huge failures. Secondly, Seals had accrued a massive amount of debt to the IRS; almost everything he owned was repossessed to pay it. Seals’ move to Nashville had been planned for quite a while but in 1982 it seemed almost a necessity.
This song that he wrote for Rebel Heart would seem to place his frustrations and hope in the story of a man trying to save his land from an evil, number-crunching banker. Sometimes when it seems like all hope is lost all you can do is work to get yourself out of trouble. Seals could only hope that the oil-rich resolution of “The Banker” came true in his life as well; he wouldn’t have to worry.
“Fewer Threads Than These” On the Front Line, 1986
The Seals album On the Front Line was his first as a country superstar. Refreshingly, Seals decided to go in a more self-assuredly country direction. With only a few exceptions (“I Will Be There,” “You Still Move Me”) the album follows a more straightforward country path. The album not only points to the direction Seals would take with his Rage On album, but also to the direction producer Kyle Lehning was already pursuing with his most famous artist, Randy Travis. This song, one of only three on the album not written by Seals, is a lovely traditional-sounding tune about patience in a relationship, featuring great dobro work by Jerry Douglas.
“Candle in the Rain” Rebel Heart, 1983
Seals had worked with Kyle Lehning for six years prior to his first country album. Lehning produced the most successful albums for England Dan and John Ford Coley. Much like Seals, Lehning didn’t consider himself part of the rock ’n’ roll community. Not only was he already working in Nashville at the time he started producing England Dan, he was established as a country musician (working with artists
like Waylon Jennings and the Glaser Brothers).
If Seals hadn’t strongly indicated an interest in country music right off the bat, it’s more than likely that he would’ve drifted in that direction anyway with Lehning at the helm. “Candle in the Rain,” an album track from Rebel Heart, features a new wave/country mix that’s pretty revolutionary. Right off the bat there’s a combination of acoustic guitar and synthesizer that hadn’t been heard in country music previous to Lehning’s production. The clear, almost new wave, drum beat in the chorus, the mixture of steel guitar and synthesizer, the airy backing vocals; “Candle in the Rain” really does combine the best elements of country and rock. It was a sound that Lehning and Seals would return to on many occasions.
“My Baby’s Got Good Timing” San Antone, 1984
Bob McDill and Dan Seals had a mutually beneficial songwriting relationship during Seals peak years as a country artist. McDill helped Seals find his voice as a country artist and songwriter, and Seals allowed McDill to get back to the more challenging material he had written in the seventies for folks like Don Williams and Bobby Bare. “My Baby’s Got Good Timing” is a tenetive first step for both artists; both are still unsure of Seals viability as a country artist.This is mainly McDill’s patented breezy love song matched with Seals’ best pop vocals. It’s an excellent combination but one that doesn’t point to the brilliant compositions the two would write in the years to come.
“God Must Be a Cowboy” Rebel Heart, 1983
To me, Seals’ Bahai faith really colors “God Must Be a Cowboy,” his first top ten hit. From what I understand (and I probably don’t) Bahai is like a buffet table of spirituality (take a little of this from Christianity, a little of that from Hinduism, oh that part of Islam looks good…), with meditation on universal tolerance at its core. “God Must Be a Cowboy” travels on the well-worn path of songs about country beauty vs. city clog, but there’s a meditative quality to the lyrics that separates it from the pack.
Seals takes time to appreciate the friendship of an old guitar, whose sound “sure smooths the wrinkles of my soul.” “An eagle overhead” makes Seals want to fly away before his time. Whatever home means to you, thank God there’s a trail to take you back there. Seals doesn’t chastise the city (“it’s alright for awhile/Sure makes you feel good when you’re there”), but he understands that in order to appreciate it you must first appreciate the quiet moments in the country. As a country artist, Seals tended to share his faith more by recording songs about tolerance rather than preaching. “God Must Be a Cowboy” really embraces his faith to a point that it shouldn’t be ignored.
“Lullaby” (with Emmylou Harris) On the Front Line, 1986
In many ways this song could be considered the opposite (or resolution of) Seals‘ huge 1985 duet “Meet Me In Montana.” Marie Osmond’s saccharine vocals are replaced by Emmylou Harris’ relaxed harmonies. A spare acoustic sound (highlighted by Mark O’Connor’s always welcome fiddle) replaces the rather bombastic orchestration of “Meet Me In Montana.” Poignancy and contentedness replaces fear and urgency. While “Meet Me in Montana” practically throttles you to get its attention (in a good way), “Lullaby” glides. The song doesn’t draw attention to itself, and if you notice how beautiful it is at the end of On the Front Line, well, good for you. A lovely song.
“Bop” Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985
Undeniably catchy, and a monster crossover hit that rocketed Seals to the top of country play lists, “Bop” is also marred by some of the worst tendencies of eighties production. From the processed saxophone to the drum machine to the squiggly synth prominent in the mix, “Bop” was Public Enemy Number One for folks who wanted country music to get back to its traditional roots. The strange thing is, “Bop”was not only an anomaly as far as Seals’ country career was concerned, but it also doesn’t match anything Kyle Lehning has been known for before or since. “Bop” was a very fun gamble that worked extraordinarily well. The unfortunate side effect was that the song associated Seals with the pre-packaged country the hat acts tried to eradicate in the early nineties.
“I Will Be There” On the Front Line, 1986
A bit of a bone thrown at the pop-country crowd that made “Bop” such a massive hit (co-written by Jennifer Kimball, the co-writer of “Bop”). That isn’t to say it’s not an impressive song, but aside from the mandolin that comes and goes in the verses it’s not very country. “I Will Be There” sticks out like a sore thumb on On the Front Line. Even so, the production is definitely more tasteful than “Bop”; it’s almost as if Seals and Lehning looked at what they had done and were like, “we need to step back a little from this for our own good.” Also very prominently featured on this song are Baillie and the Boys, a vocal group who had quite a few hits of their own in the late eighties, as well as providing excellent backup to the likes of Seals, Randy Travis and Clint Black, among others.
“Saw You in My Dreams” Make it Home, 2002
After the failure of his last two singles from On Arrival, Seals decided to sign a deal with Warner Bros. The resulting albums, Walking the Wire and the Kyle Lehning-less Fired Up, were flops. After the inevitable drop from Warner Bros. Seals became a touring artist at modest venues. With one exception, Seals’ only albums from 1994 to his death were live recordings of old hits.
His last chance at regaining his country audience was 2002’s Make it Home, a very nice collection of new material (mainly written by Seals or Nashville pro Rand Bishop). There are no amazing moments on Make it Home, but it’s almost uniformly well done. The best song on the album, in my opinion, is this song about a chance encounter/pickup. For a subject that could’ve turned sleazy on a dime (“would you believe I saw you in my dreams” he casually mentions to his crush in the chorus) it’s a sincere and very sweet song. If Make it Home is indeed Seals’ last solo album, it’s a good way to finish things up.
“Big Wheels in the Moonlight” Rage On, 1988
Seals’ 1988 album Rage On is probably his definitive moment as an artist. All of a sudden the relaxed production of On the Front Line was matched with uniformly good songs. One of the recurring themes of Rage On is wanderlust, whether it’s from a relationship (“Addicted”) or the boredom of a small town (“They Rage On”).
Wanderlust is name-checked in “Big Wheels in the Moonlight,” and it’s probably the most deceptively downcast song on the album. The protagonist spends two verses talking about his dream of riding the big rigs, but in the third he’s stuck in the same town with “kids and a wife and a regular job.” That dream that drew him in as a kid now haunts him as an adult, but he‘s resigned to not living it. Seriously, without listening to the lyrics, who would guess how sad this song is?
“You Still Move Me” On the Front Line, 1986
Country fans who can overlook the mid-eighties production painted a little thick on “You Still Move Me” will find a breathtakingly beautiful ballad. Not only is the melody lovely, but the song contains some of Seals’ greatest vocal moments. Particularly outstanding are his pained vocals in the bridge, and his “God, you move me” at the end. That moment perfectly sums up this song about a man who can’t believe he’s about to wreck a good relationship, but can’t control his emotions any longer.
“You Plant Your Fields” Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985
Wendy Waldman’s route to Nashville mirrors Dan Seals in every way except scope. A moderately successful singer/songwriter in the 1970’s, Waldman moved to Nashville in the early eighties. Unlike Seals, Waldman found her niche in songwriting for artists like Crystal Gayle, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Don Johnson (I mean, I’m talking about Wendy Waldman here, how could I ignore the fact that she wrote “Heartbeat” for Don Johnson).
“You Plant Your Fields” is more introspective than most of Waldman’s country material, comparing the seasons of love to tending the farm: “You plant your fields when the spring is tender, when the summer beats down you pray for rain, you hope for the harvest, the long cold winter, then you plant your fields again.”
“In San Antone” San Antone, 1984
Broadway vs. home is a hoary old cliché, but it always seems to apply. For every artist who makes it big on the great white way there are at least a thousand who become disillusioned and homesick. The title track to Seals second country album is a story about a singer trying to make it on Broadway but missing the girl he left behind in San Antone. It’s unclear whether he’ll return to her, but it’s a pretty safe bet considering he “can’t take much more of Broadway,” namely his squalid seventh floor apartment. The rocking coda of the song, where he proclaims “She believes in me!,” would probably point the way of departure.
“Three Time Loser” On the Front Line, 1986
It doesn’t get much more fun than this little ditty from On the Front Line. This is one of Seals’ amazing run of nine number one singles, and eleven out of twelve. It’s interesting that Seals often gets mentioned as a pop star first and country star second, because as a kid I considered him to be the quintessential country artist. Every single he released struck some sort of chord, whether it was a lovely ballad about friends, a pure rock song about someone being there, or this country song about trying to figure out girls (surprisingly prescient to a seven year-old).
“Five Generations of Rock County Wilsons” Rage On, 1988
A bit like “The Banker” in context but much more successful and realistic as a composition. If the theme for most of Rage On was wanderlust, this song expresses the exact opposite emotion. The protagonist wants to stay put and is outraged that his heritage means nothing to the men driving him off his land. He finally resigns himself to the fact that he will have to make way for the “big diesel cats.” At the end he boards a “big ol’ gray dog” bound for wherever; the song makes him sound like he’s doing it at gunpoint.
“Bordertown” On Arrival, 1990
After eight years of nothing but top ten hits, the streak finally broke with “Bordertown.” It wasn’t like the song hit number 12 either; it barely cracked the top 50. Possibly it was the transition to the early-nineties hat acts, but probably it was the controversial material: “Bordertown” is about illegal immigration, a touchy issue at the time that has only grown touchier since 9/11.
Seals and Bob McDill’s viewpoint, that everyone deserves a chance to become an American, is a stance that not many artists would take a chance on. The writers don’t waffle on “Bordertown”; they have a clear opinion that nobody should stand in the way of somebody who wants a better life. “The law’s the law,” except when the law applies to human decency. “It’s not his job to say what’s right or wrong,” and it’s not anybody’s job to stop people from improving their situation. It’s a shame that this was the single that drove Seals off of the charts, because it’s a song that deserved a wider audience to hear its message.
“Up On the Hill” Rebel Heart, 1983
Almost like a dry run for “They Rage On,” this song is about star-crossed lovers who find love and escape at night to their little makeout point. But unlike some other songs that share this same story the song takes a very pessimistic turn when the man from the wrong side of the tracks finds out “that money is what it’s all about.” But the man doesn‘t give up; every night he still climbs that hill, waiting. Good luck fella.
Another great example of the soon to be commonplace Kyle Lehning production style, with steel guitars standing side-by-side with electric guitar and a propulsive drum beat. This style almost seems more natural for those of us who grew up with 80’s and 90’s country music. To me, it’s hard to believe that there was a time when it didn’t exist (for better or worse).
“Addicted” Rage On, 1988
A brilliant song about a woman trapped in a destructive relationship, “Addicted” remains a very powerful piece of work. There’s a wonderful YouTube performance of “Addicted” from 1991 where Cheryl Wheeler joins Seals on stage to play guitar and sing a verse that wascut out of the single version. It’s interesting to see the writer and the singer’s different takes on the song: Whereas Seals sings the song like a concerned bystander dealing with a situation he has no control over, Wheeler sings her verse as an almost desperate wake-up call to a friend. It took a lot of guts for Seals to release “Addicted” as a single (and not only that, but as the first single from the album Rage On) and it’s a great performance.
“Meet Me in Montana” (with Marie Osmond) Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985
As Seals and writer Paul Davis’ first country number one and duet partner Marie Osmond’s return to the top after a ten year absence, “Meet Me In Montana” is a bit of a watershed for the soft-rock-to-country transfer of the mid-eighties. Davis was a crony of Seals and Kyle Lehning, as well as being a successful soft rock performer in his own right in the late-seventies. Instead of pursuing country superstardom Davis decided to retire from performing and write songs (occasionally performing, most notably with Paul Overstreet and Tanya Tucker on “I Won’t Take Less Than Your Love”). Davis wrote two very important songs for Seals: “Bop” and this brilliant duet. Seals’ clear voice matches perfectly with Osmond’s sunniness. Their voices add some hopefulness to a subject matter that could’ve been a little harsh.
“My Old Yellow Car” San Antone, 1984
It’s a shame that Seals didn’t pair up more with Thom Schuyler, who was for a time considered the songwriter’s songwriter in Nashville (partly because he wrote the songwriter’s song, “16th Avenue”). As a country singer, Seals was at his best telling a story or getting inside a character, and Schuyler was one of the best in the early eighties. In “My Old Yellow Car,” the successful protagonist looks back with regret at the old rust-bucket, and the innocence, that he’s lost track of.
“Love On Arrival” On Arrival, 1990
OMG it’s LOA. IMHO the song is LOL clever. I’ll quit that.
Seals’ final two number ones were great old rock ’n’ roll throwbacks: “Love On Arrival” and his cover of Sam Cooke’s “Good Times.” Those singles arrived at a time when country was trying to “get back to its roots;” instead of Sam Cooke and The Beatles (Seals’ idols growing up) the new traditionalists name-checked George Jones and Merle Haggard.
At the time it seemed like the gulf between new artists like Garth Brooks and Clint Black and late-eighties artists like Dan Seals couldn’t have been wider. Brooks and Black weren’t crossing over from pop, and they didn’t seem to have rock ‘n’ roll roots; they seemed authentic. This was before Brooks showed his Billy Joel fetish and Black started writing songs with Jimmy Buffett.
If anything, Garth Brooks can be seen nowadays as inheritor of Dan Seals’ throne: an immensely popular artist not afraid to be country or pop if the need be and not afraid to be controversial if the need be. As for the song itself, “Love On Arrival” is clever, fun and has a great hook: what more could you ask for.
“Gonna Be Easy Now” On the Front Line, 1986
A song about the hopelessness and lack-of-control of day-to-day life. I love the question/answer chorus that just gets bleaker and bleaker as it goes: “What’re you gonna do if the well runs dry? I’ll wait for the rain to fall. What’re you gonna do if the crops all die? Well, I won’t have to work at all. What’re you gonna do if the creek gets high? I’m still making up my mind. What’re you gonna do if the sun don’t shine? I’ll lay right down and die, and then everything’ll be alright.”
The protagonist puts on a brave face, a sort of roll-with-the-punches mentality, but inside he knows that “problems ain’t goin’ away, they’re just gonna change their shape” (this pessimistic attitude about rolling-with-the-punches contrasts harshly with the lessons taught in “You Plant Your Fields“). Seals’ final scream, “Everything’s gonna be easy now,” is a real eye-opener.
“They Rage On” Rage On, 1988
“They Rage On” is the song that broke Seals’ streak of number one singles, and listening to it it’s easy to see why; this ain’t no drinking song depression, it’s full-blown hopelessness. I wouldn’t place a song this bleak at the top of any chart. “They Rage On” is a song about small-town people who have nothing better to do with their lives, so they sit around holding each other tight, “searching for the answers.”
If it sounds like I’m dismissing “They Rage On” I’m certainly not; I’ve never heard a song encapsulate small town frustration any better. I’m just amazed that it was released as a single. If “They Rage On” doesn’t prove that Seals took more risks than any other country artist of the late-eighties I don’t know what does. Whatever the case, “They Rage On” is a gorgeous, brooding number which deserved its place as Seals’ streak-breaker.
“One Friend” The Best, 1987
As I said before, from reading the obituaries it would seem that Seals had two signature moments as an artist: one as a member of England Dan and John Ford Coley with Parker McGee’s “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” and the other as a solo crossover artist with “Bop.” Those two songs are all well and good, but to me “One Friend” and “Everything That Glitters” will always be Seals’ signatures.
Amazingly, “One Friend” had to be resurrected and re-recorded for his greatest hits to become a single. Seals recorded a spare two-minute long acoustic version for the end of San Antone. The original version was obviously supposed to be a pleasant little album ender, nothing more. Kyle Lehning thought the song had potential, so he had Seals repeat the bridge and the chorus, then added orchestration. The finished product is a song that is deceptively simple and universal, and one of the greatest songs about commitment I’ve ever heard.
“Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)” Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985
“Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)” is a brilliant composition. It’s a song filled with great characters (apparently from stories that Seals‘ grandmother told him): the struggling rodeo rider living in a mobile home, his little girl who’s slowly turning into a woman, the old horse that should be put to pasture except the rider “just can’t bear to let him go” and, of course, the woman who let success go to her head and left the people who loved her behind. The song is basically crying for a movie to be made of it, except no movie could match Seals’ emotions here.
The first verse and chorus is sung with vulnerability and resignation. The anger starts to build in the second verse, culminating at the bridge where he tells her “Someday I’m sure you’re gonna know the cost, cause for everything you win there’s something lost.” Then, after a moment to gather himself, Seals wistfully sings the chorus, then whistles off into the sunset.
The Country Music Association, mere weeks after inducting its 2009 class, has announced a change in the Hall of Fame criteria. Per the CMA website:
Three inductees will continue to be announced as new members of the Country Music Hall of Fame annually, each selected from a different category. Beginning in 2010, the categories will be renamed and defined as follows:
Veterans Era – This category will be for professionals that have been in the industry longer than 25 years. It combines the former “Career Achieved National Prominence Between World War II and 1975″ (which was voted on annually) and “Career Achieved National Prominence Prior to World War II” (which was voted on every third year in rotation) categories into one.
Modern Era – This category will be for professionals that have been in the industry at least 20 years, but no more than 25 years, and takes the place of the former annual “Career Achieved National Prominence Between 1975-Present” slot.
Rotating Categories – The third slot will continue to be a rotating category, with each group in the spotlight every third year. The Recording and/or Touring Musician and Non Performer slots will remain, joined by a new Songwriter category.
The Modern Era category seems far too limiting, especially given the numerous artists and industry insiders that are fully deserving of this honor. The change does present Randy Travis, Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson the opportunity to be inducted within the next two to three years, but also leaves legends such as Connie Smith, Jean Shepard and the Oak Ridge Boys to ”compete” with newer acts such as Reba McEntire and Hank Williams, Jr. for one solitary spot each year.
Eventually, all of those artists appear to be locks for the Hall of Fame, but, as My Kind of Country alluded to earlier in the week, very few artists in modern-day country music will truly be remembered. Here’s a list of ten contemporary artists who could make the Hall of Fame one day. Although their careers aren’t complete, they have the potential to be lauded for their talent in the coming years. Sound off in the comments with your opinions on who is in, who is out and who could still make a case for induction. Feel free to add any other artists you’d deem worthy. This is not my judgment of who should/should not be included, but a random listing of ten artists who could at least present interesting cases in, say, 2020. Feedback it up. (For a glance at near-future candidates, see Six Pack: Hall of Fame Inductees. Barbara Mandrell, Roy Clark and Charlie McCoy are the 2009 honorees.)
While the Grammys have honored country music from the very first ceremony in 1959, they did not begin honoring by gender until 1965, when the country categories were expanded along with the other genre categories. This year, the 45th trophy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance will be awarded.
In a continuation of our Grammy Flashback series, here is a rundown of the Best Country Vocal Performance, Male category. It was first awarded in 1965, and included singles competing with albums until the Best Country Album category was added in 1995. When an album is nominated, it is in italics, and a single track is in quotation marks.
As usual, we start with a look at this year’s nominees and work our way back. Be sure to vote in My Kind of Country’sBest Male Country Vocal Performance poll and let your preference for this year’s race be known!
Trace Adkins, “You’re Gonna Miss This”
Jamey Johnson, “In Color”
James Otto, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”
Brad Paisley, “Letter to Me”
George Strait, “Troubadour”
As with the album race, this year’s contenders for Best Male Country Vocal Performance are a combination of unrecognized veterans and promising newcomers. In fact, none of this year’s nominees have won in this category, and only one of them – Brad Paisley – has a Grammy at all.
First, the veterans. Paisley has numerous ACM and CMA victories to his credit, including two each for Male Vocalist. Although he’s been nominated for this award twice before, this is the first time he’s contended with a cut that can’t be dismissed as a novelty number. The touching self-penned “Letter to Me” is his best shot yet at taking this home.
Trace Adkins has been at this a bit longer than Paisley, but this is his first Grammy nomination. His crossover exposure from Celebrity Apprentice might help him out here, along with the fact that the song was considered strong enough by voters to earn a nomination of its own.
But the real veteran to watch out for is George Strait. After being nominated only twice for this category in the first 25 years of his career, voters have now given him three consecutive nominations. This is one of four nods he’s earned for the 2009 ceremony, and “Troubadour” is essentially the story of his epic career distilled into a radio-length song. It would be the perfect way to honor the man and his music in one fell swoop.
However, there’s a newcomer that might be a Grammy favorite already. We just haven’t found out yet. Not James Otto, of course, who is nominated for his charming romantic romp “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”, but rather, Jamey Johnson. The recent Nashville Scene critics’ poll further confirmed the depth of his support among tastemakers, and his nominations for Best Country Song and Best Country Album indicate that he’s very much on the academy’s radar. It helps that he has the most substantial track of the five, and it’s the obvious choice for traditionalists, who have little reason to split their votes in this category. If voters aren’t considering legacy when making their selections, he has a great shot at this.
Dierks Bentley, “Long Trip Alone”
Alan Jackson, “A Woman’s Love”
Tim McGraw, “If You’re Reading This”
George Strait, “Give it Away”
Keith Urban, “Stupid Boy”
The often offbeat Grammy voters have been surprisingly mainstream in this category for the past three years, a trend best exemplified by this lineup, which was the first in more than a decade to feature only top ten radio hits. Tim McGraw and Keith Urban were the only two who had won this before, and it was Urban who emerged victorious. ”Stupid Boy” was a highlight of his fourth studio album, and this was the only major award that the impressive collection would win.
Dierks Bentley, “Every Mile a Memory”
Vince Gill, “The Reason Why”
George Strait, “The Seashores of Old Mexico”
Josh Turner, “Would You Go With Me”
Keith Urban, “Once in a Lifetime”
Vince Gill returned to win in this category for a ninth time with “The Reason Why.” Not only is he, by far, the most honored artist in this category, his wins here account for nine of the nineteen Grammys currently on his mantle.
George Jones, “Funny How Time Slips Away”
Toby Keith, “As Good As I Once Was”
Delbert McClinton, “Midnight Communion”
Willie Nelson, “Good Ol’ Boys”
Brad Paisley, “Alcohol”
Keith Urban, “You’ll Think of Me”
Urban’s biggest and probably best hit launched his second album to triple platinum and established him as a crossover artist. He gave a killer performance of the song on the show. Toby Keith was a first-time nominee here, and while he publicly groused that the Grammys put too little emphasis on commercial success in picking their nominations, he lost to the only track that was a bigger hit than his own.