Producing primarily pop-flavored country music has rarely been a ticket to immortality for even the biggest artists, particularly the female ones. Imports like Shania Twain and Olivia Newton-John are labeled impostors. Faith Hill’s canny song sense is overlooked while hubby Tim McGraw’s is widely praised. Brilliant Dolly Parton records like “Here You Come Again” and “9 to 5″ are cited as being beneath her greatness, rather than prime examples of it. Only Patsy Cline has been given a free pass, and who wouldn’t want to claim those pipes?
Where does this leave Crystal Gayle, younger sister of Loretta Lynn and owner of 32 top ten hits, 18 of which went #1? As the first female country artist to sell platinum, her impact was quite big back in the day. But aside from her signature classic “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”, her music has been largely forgotten. Perhaps this is because she peaked during an era that is often looked down upon as too crossover for its own good. Unlike Parton and Cline, there is virtually nothing for traditionalists to celebrate within Gayle’s catalog of hits. But much like Hill and Newton-John, the woman recorded some wonderful songs that deserve rediscovery. Here are a dozen of the best.
“I’ll Do It All Over Again” from the 1976 album Crystal
Gayle typically avoided purely victim stances in her lyrics. Here, she’s been left but is aware that her heart will mend and that she’ll love again.
“Ready For the Times to Get Better” from the 1976 album Crystal
Country singles recorded in a minor key are quite the rarity, but the arrangement undercuts the misery of the lyric, even as she’s clearly ready to move on to happier times. This just might be her finest moment.
“Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” from the 1977 album We Must Believe in Magic
This classic won her a Grammy and the first of two CMA Female Vocalist trophies. If the piano sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same player that powered Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors” to similar success on both the country and pop charts.
“Talking In Your Sleep” from the 1978 album When I Dream
Proving that her appeal wasn’t limited to one big hit, this hit launched what would become Gayle’s second consecutive platinum album.
“Why Have You Left the One You Left Me For” from the 1978 album When I Dream
Her first really big uptempo hit defied expectations and broke her out of the ballad mold. It didn’t hurt that it was ridiculously catchy.
“Half the Way” from the 1979 album Miss the Mississippi
Another hook-laden hit, powered by an infectious string section and quite a bit more wailing than she’s usually known for.
“Too Many Lovers” from the 1980 album These Days
What sounds like a quiet bar ballad in the first few seconds soon turns into an uptempo message of caution to women looking for love in all the wrong places.
“You Never Gave Up On Me” from the 1981 album Hollywood, Tennessee
There aren’t too many anniversary songs that essentially say, “Thanks for loving me even when I didn’t love you.” Romantic songs like to pretend that both partners are equally kind and loving, when that isn’t always the case. I like ones like this more.
“‘Til I Gain Control Again” from the 1982 album True Love
Crystal Gayle was hardly the predictable vehicle for this intricate Rodney Crowell composition that had been previously cut by Emmylou Harris. Even she didn’t think she could pull it off. Thankfully, producer Jimmy Bowen coaxed her into it, and the result was a #1 hit that was also among her most sophisticated performances.
“Baby, What About You” from the 1982 album True Love
Not much more to say about this one than it’s a slice of pop-country perfection.
“The Sound of Goodbye” from the 1983 album Cage the Songbird
One of Hugh Prestwood’s first great moments as a writer was this hit. Much like his material later pushed Randy Travis into a more ambitious production approach (“Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart”), the sonic landscape of this #1 hit pushed Gayle and country radio into far more interesting territory.
“Cry” from the 1986 album Straight to the Heart
Given that she’s in the grand tradition of those Nashville Sound ladies, it’s no surprise that Gayle not only covered Lynn Anderson’s #3 hit effectively, she even took it two slots higher up the chart.
When Rodney Crowell had his gold-selling commercial breakthrough with the album Diamonds & Dirt, his previous label was quick to capitalize on his success. Usually, pre-hit cash-in CDs are little more than a curiosity, but Crowell’s is the exception.
There is a smorgasbord of great material here, including early versions of songs that Crowell would see other artists have success with the same songs.
Some of Crowell’s strongest compositions are here, such as:
“‘Til I Gain Control Again”, a #1 hit for Crystal Gayle that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
“I Ain’t Living Long Like This”, a #1 hit for Waylon Jennings that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
“Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”, a #1 hit for the Oak Ridge Boys that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
“Ashes By Now”, a top five hit for Lee Ann Womack that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
“I Don’t Have to Crawl”, a minor hit for Emmylou Harris that was later recorded by Rosanne Cash
“Shame on the Moon”, a top fifteen country hit for Bob Seeger
“Victim or a Fool”, a top forty hit for Crowell that was also recorded by Crystal Gayle
“Stars on the Water”, later covered by George Strait and Jimmy Buffett
How good was this guy’s ear? Even the songs he didn’t write went on to become hits, with Ricky Skaggs taking “Heartbroke” to #1 and Juice Newton scoring a massive pop hit with “Queen of Hearts.” The only thing missing here is “Elvira”, which Crowell also recorded first.
This has always been a budget collection, but now it’s incredibly affordable – twelve tracks for $5.49. Given that Warner is asking for $9.90 for the far inferior Pam Tillis Collection, which includes only ten tracks, this one’s a steal.
Country Universe contributor and reader Cory DeStein flagged this rundown from Billboard regarding women on the charts this decade:
PERFECT 10: On Country Songs, Carrie Underwood ropes her 10th top 10, as “Cowboy Casanova” climbs 11-8. With the advance, Underwood now stands alone in first-place for most top 10s on the chart among solo women this decade.
Here are the solo females with the most top 10s on Country Songs since 2000:
10, Carrie Underwood
9, Faith Hill
9, Martina McBride
8, Taylor Swift
7, Sara Evans
7, Reba McEntire
6, Jo Dee Messina
5, LeAnn Rimes
5, Gretchen Wilson
4, Shania Twain
Notably, the artist who led the category among women last decade did so with almost three times as many top 10s. Reba McEntire ranked first among solo women in the ’90s with 27 top 10s on Country Songs. Trisha Yearwood placed second with 18 between 1990 and 1999, and Faith Hill, Patty Loveless and Tanya Tucker each posted 14 in that span.
The decline in fortune for women at radio this decade is even more pronounced when you compare the above top ten to the previous decade:
Most Top Ten Singles by a Female Artist – 1990-1999:
Reba McEntire (27)
Trisha Yearwood (18)
Faith Hill (14)
Patty Loveless (14)
Tanya Tucker (14)
Pam Tillis (13)
Lorrie Morgan (12)
Shania Twain (12)
Martina McBride (10)
That’s ten women who matched Underwood’s total for this decade. That Underwood didn’t even hit the top ten for the first time until late 2005 shows how bleak it was at radio for female artists this year.
But this comparison doesn’t even tell the whole story. Take a look at the list of women with the most top ten singles two decades ago:
Most Top Ten Singles by a Female Artist – 1980-1989:
Reba McEntire (23)
Crystal Gayle (22)
Dolly Parton (21)
Janie Fricke (17)
Barbara Mandrell (17)
Rosanne Cash (16)
Emmylou Harris (16)
Anne Murray (14)
Tanya Tucker (12)
Kathy Mattea (10)
Notice the trend? This decade, the top ten women combined for a total of 70 top ten hits. In the 90’s, the top ten women enjoyed a total of 145 top ten hits. In the eighties, a total of 168 top ten hits. Even the nineties list is dominated by women who were played heavily in the earlier part of the decade.
What’s strange is that it was in the mid-nineties that female artists became the dominant commercial force in country music. Janie Fricke never had a gold album. Shania Twain has sold 48 million albums. Yet Fricke had more top ten hits in just the eighties than Shania Twain has earned in her entire career. Record buyers have wholeheartedly embraced Alison Krauss and Miranda Lambert, but despite their strong sales, they’ve each enjoyed only one solo top ten hit.
So what to make of all of this? Is the recent success of Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood an indication that things are improving for women on the radio dial? Is it worth noting that Sugarland and Jennifer Nettles (11 top ten hits) and the Dixie Chicks (14 top ten hits) have done their part to compensate for this lack of gender parity? Does it even matter that radio is playing women less often each decade, especially if record buyers are finding their music anyway?
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.
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 is a look back at the Best Female Country Vocal Performance category. It was first awarded in 1965, an included single 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.
I’ve often made the case that female artists were making the best music in the 1990s, and the Grammys did a great job nominating songs and albums that were ignored at the CMA and ACM awards, which is not surprising, given that those shows have so few categories that are actually for songs and albums.
As usual, we start with a look at this year’s nominees and work our way back.
Martina McBride, “For These Times”
LeAnn Rimes, “What I Cannot Change”
Carrie Underwood, “Last Name”
Lee Ann Womack, “Last Call”
Trisha Yearwood, “This is Me You’re Talking To”
This year’s lineup includes three former winners and two women looking for their first victory in this category. Martina McBride is in the running for the eighth time in fifteen years, and with one of her more understated performances. Lee Ann Womack returns for a fifth time, having received a nomination for the lead single of her five most recent albums. Both ladies turned in good performances here, but they’ve been overlooked for records bigger and better, so they’re not likely to snap their losing streaks this time around.
As for the previous winners, LeAnn Rimes earned her third consecutive nod, bringing her total to five in this category. She hasn’t won since 1997, when she took home the award for “Blue.” If enough voters hear “What I Cannot Change,” she might have a shot, though the only version of the song that’s been a legitimate hit has been the dance remix.
Trisha Yearwood won in 1998 for “How Do I Live,” her only victory to date. But she’s earned her tenth nomination for “This is Me You’re Talking To,” which is arguably her strongest vocal performance of the ten. Like Rimes, the challenge is getting enough voters to listen to it, but she’s never been more deserving of the victory than she is this year.
Still, the favorite remains Carrie Underwood. She’s quickly become a favorite with Grammy voters, having won this category two years running, along with Best New Artist in 2007. She’s the nominee with the highest profile, and while “Last Name” is nowhere near the same league of “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Before He Cheats” in terms of artistry or impact, it was a big hit, something that the other four entries cannot claim.
If Underwood was nominated for “Just a Dream,” she’d have a mortal lock on this one. But the strength of the other nominees will at least keep this race competitive. If Underwood prevails, Grammy queen Alison Krauss better watch her back.
Alison Krauss, “Simple Love”
Miranda Lambert, “Famous in a Small Town”
LeAnn Rimes, “Nothin’ Better to Do”
Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats”
Trisha Yearwood, “Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love”
Looking at this lineup, you’d think that it was a golden age of female country artists, something akin to the mid-nineties. In reality, only one of these songs was a big radio hit, though three others managed to go top twenty. In terms of quality, however, this is the most consistent and thoroughly wonderful set of nominees this category has seen this century. You’d have to go back to exactly 1999 to find a better lineup.
In a year when any winner would have been deserving, Underwood won for “Before He Cheats,” her second straight win for a signature mega-hit from her debut album.
Earlier this year, the Grammys celebrated their fiftieth anniversary with a series of compilations focusing on winners in different fields. Two of the best entries in this series focused on country music. With five decades of winners to choose from, it’s no surprise that Ultimate Grammy Collection: Classic Country and Ultimate Grammy Collection: Contemporary Country are solid collections.
The Classic Country set is particularly strong, including a diverse selection of significant artists from the sixties and seventies. Even better, most of them are represented with their signature tracks. Roger Miller opens the set with “King of the Road”, easily his biggest hit. Other superstars include Tammy Wynette (“Stand By Your Man”), Johnny Cash (“A Boy Named Sue”) and Waylon & Willie (“Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”)
As the collection moves on to the seventies and eighties, there is a healthy portion of pop-country classics from the likes of Kenny Rogers (“The Gambler”), Dolly Parton (“9 to 5″), Crystal Gayle (“Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue”) and Willie Nelson (“Always on My Mind”). In the midst of that crossover sound, however, there’s a healthy dose of traditional country, courtesy of George Jones with “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
That Jones track is the only one that wouldn’t be familiar to fans that buy the set because they remember those crossover hits, even though it’s a country classic. They might also revel in the discovery of Ray Price (“For the Good Times”) and Jerry Reed (“When You’re Hot, You’re Hot”), which were both AM radio staples back when top 40 regularly played country records. The set also includes mega-hits from Charlie Daniels Band, Lynn Anderson, Donna Fargo and Jeannie C. Riley. The only real misstep is the inclusion of Johnny Cash & June Carter’s “If I Were a Carpenter”, an unnecessary inclusion that was no doubt shoehorned in because of lingering sentiment for all things Cash. That slot would’ve been better represented with Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn’s “After the Fire is Gone.”
She had an older sister that was already a country legend by the time she was ready to pursue her musical dream, but Crystal Gayle followed big sister Loretta Lynn’s advice to form her own distinctive style, and she ended up an enormous star in her own right.
Loretta had already married and moved to Washington when Brenda Gail Webb was born. When Brenda was only four, the family moved to Indiana, a good distance away from the Butcher Holler home of her older sister. When Loretta became a star, young Brenda was inspired to follow in her footsteps. She learned guitar, taught herself folk songs and went out on the road with Loretta during her summer breaks from school.
Upon graduation, she signed with Decca Records. They already had Brenda Lee on their label, so they asked Brenda Gail to change her name. Her fondness for Krystal Hamburgers led to her stage name, Crystal Gayle. Loretta wrote her first single “I’ve Cried the Blue (Right Out of My Eyes),” and Gayle performed it in a similar style to hers as well. The song was a modest hit, but future singles fared poorly. The label insisted that Gayle sing like her older sister, which pigeonholed her as an artist.