To recognize the impact that Alabama has had on modern country music, you could consider their millions of albums sold, their hundreds of awards, their many #1 songs or their induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. You could also look at how the boys from Fort Payne, Ala. have the distinction of bringing something entirely new into country music.
Prior to Alabama, country music was predominantly a land of solo acts, with the occasional superstar duos (Conway & Loretta, George & Tammy) or backing bands (The Strangers, The Buckaroos) thrown in for good measure. Sure, there were plenty of vocal groups (Statler Brothers, Oak Ridge Boys), but actual bands, who played their own instruments, were few and far between in country music. It took Alabama to break down that particular barrier, and they paved the way for groups like Zac Brown Band, Diamond Rio, Eli Young Band and others.
Alabama is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a reunion tour and a couple of well-deserved tribute albums. The tributes are quite different, with one being done under the direction of the band, and the other a completely independent effort.
Alabama & Friends, featuring many of today’s leading country stars, comes off as less of a tribute album and more of an Alabama-themed celebrity karaoke night. Many of the songs have very similar arrangements to the originals, and even include Randy Owen, Jeff Cook and Teddy Gentry on lead and harmony vocals.
Many of the memorable elements from the original songs are still present. The fiddle breakdown in “Tennessee River” (with Jason Aldean), the tempo changes in “My Home’s in Alabama” (with Jamey Johnson) – they’re all present and accounted for. The songs that stick close to the originals aren’t necessarily bad. Luke Bryan, for instance, has plenty of flaws as a country singer, but his vocal abilities are not in question, so his version of “Love in the First Degree” is solid. The same could be said of Jason Aldean’s take on “Tennessee River” and Toby Keith’s “She and I.” There’s nothing wrong with them, but fans who love the Alabama originals might think the new ones are a bit too by-the-book.
There are a few instances where the guest singers step outside the box and add more of their own personality to the recording. Trisha Yearwood, the only female voice on the project, does a lovely job on “Forever’s as Far as I’ll Go,” and “Lady Down on Love” by Kenny Chesney stands among his best vocal performances. The same can’t be said of Florida Georgia Line, who takes “I’m in a Hurry (and Don’t Know Why),” adds their usual amount of noise and clutter to the mix, and makes it sound like every other Florida Georgia Line song ever recorded. While it’s a rare opportunity to hear both Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley sing lead vocals, it raises the issue of whether or not they’ve already run out of original ideas.
Alabama recorded two songs for the first time in 11 years, but they’re the weakest songs on the album. For a band that was one of the first to successfully blend country music with amped-up Southern rock, “That’s How I Was Raised” and “All American” are low-energy, generic rah-rah country disappointments.
Various Artists High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama
High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama, is available from Lightning Rod Records and has a collection of Americana/Red Dirt/indie all-stars doing their takes on Alabama hits. There is some overlap with the Alabama & Friends, but these versions have a bit more of an original feel. “Why Lady Why” gets transformed into a smoldering soul tune by JD McPherson, while Jason Isbell and John Paul White of The Civil Wars completely reinvent “Old Flame.” The Turnpike Troubadours and Shonna Tucker provide a spark with “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” and “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler),” respectively. While neither version is light years from the original, they add energy to a project that leans heavily toward slow and reflective songs.
Two of Alabama’s love songs are recast as duets. While it’s startling to hear Todd Snider as a romantic balladeer instead of a smart-ass hippie folk singer, his voice never quite meshes with Elizabeth Cook on “Feels So Right.” Wade Bowen and Brandy Clark’s duet on “Love in the First Degree” is excellent, however, and raises the anticipation level for Clark’s debut album.
Not every experiment is a success. Once again, “I’m in a Hurry” gets short shrift, as Jessica Lea Mayfield turns it into a funereal dirge. “Lady Down on Love” just does not work as a bluegrass/spoken word ballad, as evidenced by Bob Schneider & The Texas Bluegrass Massacre with Ray Benson. Jason Boland & The Stragglers’ take on “Mountain Music” is fine, but the insistence of aping the original, from the spoken-word intro to the guest vocals from a couple of the Stragglers à la Cook and Gentry is a little cheesy.
It’s a testament to Alabama’s far-reaching appeal that artists as different as Jason Isbell and Jason Aldean would want to sing their songs. Whether it’s a note-for-note recreation or a completely new interpretation of their hit songs, there is something in these two albums to please any Alabama fan.
Refresh for updates. Major categories will be announced above the fold:
Male Country Vocal Performance: Keith Urban, “‘Til Summer Comes Around”
Country Duo/Group Vocal Performance: Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
Country Song: Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott, “Need You Now”
Country Collaboration with Vocals: Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson, “As She’s Walking Away”
Country Instrumental Performance: Marty Stuart, “Hummingbyrd”
Bluegrass Album: Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul II
Americana Album: Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone
Traditional Folk Album: Carolina Chocolate Drops, Genuine Negro Jig
Contemporary Folk Album: Ray LaMontagne And The Pariah Dogs, God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise
Southern/Country/Gospel Bluegrass Album: Diamond Rio, The Reason
Traditional Gospel Album: Patty Griffin, Downtown Church
Short Form Music Video: Lady GaGa, “Bad Romance”
Long Form Music Video: The Doors, When You’re Strange
Recording Package: The Black Keys, Brothers
Boxed Limited Edition Package: The White Stripes, Under Great White Northern Lights
Album Notes: Big Star, Keep an Eye on the Sky
Historical Album: The Beatles, Original Studio Recordings
Engineered Album, Non-Classical: John Mayer, Battle Studies
Remixed Recording: Madonna, “Revolver (David Guetta’s One Love Club Remix)”
Surround Sound Album: Michael Stern & Kansas City Symphony, Britten’s Orchestra
Instrumental Composition: Billy Childs, “The Path Among the Trees”
Instrumental Arrangement: John Scofield, Vince Mendoza & Metropole Orkest, “Carlos”
Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocals: Christopher Tin, Soweto Gospel Choir & Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, “Baba Yetu”
Compilation Soundtrack Album:Crazy Heart
Score Soundtrack Album: Toy Story 3
Motion Picture, TV, Visual Media Song: Ryan Bingham & T. Bone Burnett, “The Weary Kind”
New Age Album: Kitaro, Sacred Journey Of Ku-Kai, Volume 4
Children’s Musical Album: Pete Seeger With The Rivertown Kids And Friends, Tomorrow’s Children
Children’s Spoken Word Album: Julie Andrews & Emma Walton Hamilton, Julie Andrews’ Collection Of Poems, Songs, And Lullabies
Spoken Word Album: Jon Stewart (With Samantha Bee, Wyatt Cenac, Jason Jones, John Oliver & Sigourney Weaver), The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Presents Earth (The Audiobook)
Musical Show Album: Billie Joe Armstrong, American Idiot (Featuring Green Day)
Hawaiian Music Album: Tia Carrere, Huana Ke Aloha
Native American Music Album: Various Artists, 2010 Gathering Of Nations Pow Wow: A Spirit’s Dance
Zydeco/Cajun Music Album: Chubby Carrier And The Bayou Swamp Band, Zydeco Junkie
Reggae Album: Buju Banton, Before The Dawn
Traditional World Music Album: Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabaté, Ali And Toumani
Contemporary World Music Album: Béla Fleck, Throw Down Your Heart , Africa Sessions Part 2: Unreleased Tracks
Dance Recording: Rihanna, “Only Girl (In the World)”
Electronic/Dance Album: La Roux, La Roux
Traditional Pop Vocal Album: Michael Bublé, Crazy Love
Latin Pop Album: Alejandro Sanz, Paraiso Express
Latin Rock/Alternative/Urban Album: Grupo Fantasma, El Existential
Tropical Latin Album: Spanish Harlem Orchestra, Viva La Tradición
Tejano Album:Little Joe & La Familia, Recuerdos
Norteño Album:Intocable, Classic
Banda Album:El Güero Y Su Banda Centenario, Enamórate De Mí
Gospel Performance: BeBe & CeCe Winans, “Grace”
Gospel Song: Jerry Peters & Kirk Whalum, “It’s What I Do”
Rock or Rap Gospel Album: Switchfoot, Hello Hurricane
Pop Contemporary Gospel Album: Israel Houghton, Love God. Love People.
Contemporary R&B Gospel Album: BeBe & CeCe Winans, Still
Engineering, Classical: TIE: Giancarlo Guerrero & Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Daugherty: Metropolis Symphony; Deus Ex Machina AND Eliesha Nelson & John McLaughlin Williams, Quincy Porter: Complete Viola Works
Orchestral Performance: Giancarlo Guerrero, Daugherty: Metropolis Symphony; Deus Ex Machina
Opera Recording:Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin; Rundfunkchor Berlin, Saariaho: L’Amour De Loin
Theme parks are full of aspiring musicians hoping to make it big. Most of them never do, but Diamond Rio did, and in a very big way.
The nucleus of the band was formed in 1984, when lead singer Marty Roe met keyboard player Dan Truman while both were working at Opryland U.S.A., a now-defunct theme park adjacent to the Grand Ole Opry theater.
First billed as the Grizzly River Boys, they changed their name to the Tennessee River Boys before settling on Diamond Rio. Along the way, they picked up four more members: Gene Johnson, Jimmy Oleander, Brian Prout, and Dana Williams.
They quickly settled on a mainstream country sound that was tinged with bluegrass. Though they signed to Arista in 1988, health issues with several band members delayed the recording of their debut album. When they finally hit the marketplace in 1991, their debut single, “Meet in the Middle”, became the first ever by a country group to go to #1.
Over the next decade, they would be the most consistently successful country band. Their debut album sold platinum, and nearly every other release would sell at least gold. They dominated at the country award shows, winning the CMA Vocal Group trophy four times. Though they were regular fixtures on the radio from their first hit, it wasn’t until 1997 that they topped the charts again, this time with the catchy “How Your Love Makes Me Feel”, which earned an ACM nomination for Single Record of the Year.
Toward the end of their hit run, they became more known for their ballads. “One More Day” became an anthem in the wake of the 9/11 tragedies, and “I Believe”, their final #1 hit, foreshadowed their transition into Christian music.
Even though all of their studio albums for Arista had gone at least gold, the label refused to release their eighth set, Can’t You Tell, which was recorded in 2003. Radio hadn’t embraced the two singles sent to them from the project. Instead, the label released a second hits collection in 2005, which would be their final release for the label that featured new material. “God Only Cries”, the single from that set, became their last radio hit, peaking at #30.
Not content to play out their twilight years as a has-been country band, the group successfully embraced its Christian roots and re-emerged as a successful Christian country band. After the warm response received for a Christmas album, they released the critically-acclaimed The Reason, which earned them a Dove Award for Country Album of the Year.
September has a lot of album releases that I’m really enjoying or looking forward to. In fact, it’s the most lucrative month for music for my taste in quite some time.
Last Tuesday (September 7), Rounder Records released The SteelDrivers’ second album, Reckless (which is pretty spectacular, by the way) and this week, they will be releasing Robert Plant’s follow up to his 2007 collaborative album with Alison Krauss, also on Rounder. From the streaming preview that can be heard on NPR’s website until release day, the album is a wonderfully rootsy project helmed by Plant and Buddy Miller and includes guitar work from Darrell Scott. October will also finally see the release of Joe Diffie’s bluegrass album on the label.
When one learns that an album will be released through Rounder Records (which has recently been sold to Concord Music Group), it’s pretty much automatically expected that the project will be quality. Whether it’s The SteelDrivers, Robert Plant, Joe Diffie, John Mellancamp, Alison Krauss or Willie Nelson, it’s reasonable to assume certain aspects of a Rounder release, including that the album may even stray from a typical artist release to be more rootsy in approach, as is the case with the recent Willie Nelson and John Mellancamp albums, along with the upcoming Diffie project. More often than not, I can count on Rounder Records to please my musical sensibilities, even with unexpected artists, since I never expected that Robert Plant would be recording some of my favorite roots music.
As much as I love and count on Rounder Records to produce great music, my absolute favorite record company is Sugar Hill Records (owned by Vanguard Records). Incidentally, Joey+Rory will be releasing their anticipated second album through Sugar Hill on Tuesday (September 14). Additionally, Marty Stuart’s recent release, the excellent Ghost Train, was released through them as well. Other artist who have been associated with Sugar Hill include, but are not limited to: Nickel Creek, Ricky Skaggs, Guy Clark, Dolly Parton, Darrell Scott, Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, The Duhks, Sarah Jarosz, and the list goes on. As with Rounder Records, many artists seem to release albums with Sugar Hill as a deviation from the music for which they are most popularly associated, as is the case with Dolly Parton, Ricky Skaggs, and even Rodney Crowell, who released his venerable The Houston Kid on the label.
Right now, it seems that my favorite record labels aren’t in the business of releasing music that we hear on mainstream country radio, though Joey+Rory are attempting to crack through. While I don’t have the inside knowledge to say that it doesn’t exist, we don’t hear about the red tape and politics that is ever present with major companies like, lets say, the infamous Curb Records, which has produced some rather publicly disgruntled artists, most notably Tim McGraw and the two Living Hank Williamses.
But when I was a kid, MCA Records was the label that seemed like the powerhouse record company for country music to me. Some of my favorite artists were on that label, including Trisha Yearwood, George Strait, Reba McEntire and, of course, Vince Gill. I admired the country roster of Arista as well, which included Alan Jackson, Diamond Rio, Radney Foster, and Blackhawk.
Along with reminding you about some good releases that have recently been released and will soon be available, this is the very long and self-indulgent way of getting to the question of:
What is the record label that you most admire and can count on to release your favorite music?
And so we come to the end. The top of our list includes a wide range of artists singing a wide range of country music styles. Thematically, these entries are diverse, but what they all have in common is what has always made for great country music. They are all perfectly-written songs delivered with sincerity by the artists who brought them to life.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #25-#1
Smoke Rings in the Dark Gary Allan
1999 | Peak: #12
Being deeply enamored of someone can make it easy – even appealing – to forfeit your own well-being. This single’s sunny tone reflects the persistent affection running through its protagonist, but its story demonstrates the heartbreak to which such unmeasured selflessness leads. – DM (more…)
As we reach the halfway point of the countdown, seventies stars like Tanya Tucker and Don Williams prove just as relevant to the decade as newbies like Terri Clark and and Clay Walker. But it’s eighties original George Strait that dominates this section with three additional entries.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #225-#201
Passionate Kisses Mary Chapin Carpenter
1992 | Peak: #4
A lightweight wish list/love ditty that somehow seems to tap into a deep well of truth. Credit Carpenter’s soulful vocal, which digs in and finds the cohesive character written between the song’s separate cute lines. – Dan Milliken
The electric guitar line sounds cribbed from The Police’s “Every Breath You Take”, but the sentiment couldn’t be much more different. Dalton is tense all over, as bad omens seem to stack on top of each other while she waits in anticipation of one big let-down. – DM (more…)
From his rocking side, Tritt is tired of trying to please everyone around him, including his demanding lover. As a result, he brashly declares that he’s going to make some changes, which will include looking out for himself. Get out of the way, because his ferocious performance makes him seem quite serious about his epiphany. – Leeann Ward (more…)
Sometimes the choices that you make linger forever. Here, a woman in her thirties drives past a high school football game, and her mind wanders to the painful void left in her heart from the son she gave up for adoption. – Kevin Coyne
Faith Hill’s sophomore album is a surprisingly deep set, filled with candid insights into different womens’ lives. The title track represents that approach well, with Hill’s protagonist speaking to the differences in her approach to love and her partner’s. Seems simple, but then again, people spend thousands in couples counseling trying to find a way to voice feelings this directly. – Dan Milliken
She’d Give Anything Boy Howdy
1993 | Peak: #4
A not-so-subtle depiction of how elusive true love can be for some women – even those who desperately seek it – that resonates not despite of but because of its blatancy. There’s a beautiful honesty to the song’s precise articulation of the mixture of frustration and strength that builds up within these women. – Tara Seetharam
The Trouble With the Truth Patty Loveless
1997 | Peak: #15
The trouble with the truth is that is just so demanding. We think we want it, but it often requires some sort of action from us once we have it. Loveless struggles with this quandary: “The trouble with the truth is it always begs for more. That’s the trouble with the truth.” – Leeann Ward
Still Gonna Die Old Dogs
1999 | Peak: Did Not Chart
Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis, Bobby Bare, and Jerry Reed united for an amazing live album dominated by Shel Silverstein songs. For anyone who read his brilliant poetry books for children, “Still Gonna Die” is the golden years equivalent: clever, frightening, and darkly hilarious. KC
From the first strains of the song, we know this is going to be a dark one. While he hasn’t physically cheated yet, the thoughts of at least wishing to do so are spilling over, which begs the analogy of “It’s like trying to hide a fire in the dark.” – LW
She is Gone Willie Nelson
1996 | Peak: Did Not Chart
As in his classic recording of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”, Nelson’s sad remembrance of a lost love glows with unspoken warmth, as the beauty of his good memories shines through the outer layer of melancholy. – DM
Presenting the perfect Country & Western song! This is a great David Allan Coe cover with some alterations, including the exclusion of a stanza (which does water down the song a bit), changes to the spoken part, and additions of some special guests. – LW
Wine Into Water T. Graham Brown
1998 | Peak: #44
A kneeling drunkard’s plea for the modern age. A broken man struggling with his alcoholism asks Jesus to perform His first miracle in reverse. Brown’s rough and tumble voice is the best possible fit for this fine composition.- KC
High Powered Love Emmylou Harris
1993 | Peak: #63
The added punch to the production shows that Harris could do nineties country as well as anybody on the radio back then, which is quite the compliment, given who was getting airplay in 1993. A perfect lament for a lover who won’t settle for skin deep treasures, she wonders, “Is there anyone left with teeth just a little uneven? Who won’t spend more time with a mirror than he does with me?” – KC
You Won’t Ever Be Lonely Andy Griggs
1998 | Peak: #2
Griggs creates a touching ballad out of one of the sweetest, simplest promises that comes with making a commitment to someone – that no matter the storm outside, you’ll never have to face it alone. – TS
Instead of serving as a means to shut the other person out, the door that Tippin is suggesting is for the purpose of letting the other person in. “a door ain’t nothin’ but a way to get through a wall”, he sings. If they work together to create it, then they might be able to walk through it to meet each other halfway. – LW
Built on a poignantly written metaphor, “The River” gracefully weaves together elements of faith, inspiration and motivation. It’s a masterful single, from its poetic lyrics to its beautifully simplistic arrangement, but the heart and soul is Brooks’ gripping conviction – quiet yet fierce. On a personal note, this song contains one of my all-time favorite lyrics that I often revisit: “So don’t you sit upon the shoreline and say you’re satisfied/Choose to chance the rapids and dare to dance the tide.” – TS
McGraw’s character leaves behind a lifelong love interest and a little home town to explore the world. But instead of getting good closure, the poor guy starts seeing the girl he left in every place he visits, even long after she has married and had children. That these visions could feasibly represent both unresolved romantic feelings and the inescapable imprint of one’s roots is just country-delicious. – DM
You’re Beginning to Get to Me Clay Walker
1998 | Peak: #2
Walker’s falling head first for a girl, but he isn’t ready to take the plunge with the L-word just yet. In his catalogue of fabulous 90s hits, this understated “love” song gets overshadowed by some of the more distinct ones, but it’s nonetheless memorable. – TS
Travis Tritt is one of few country artists who is as known for his rocking side as he is for being a strong balladeer. “Help Me Hold on” is a plea to his lover to help him salvage what’s left of their relationship, which doesn’t seem to be much, since she’s already packing a suitcase. – LW
New fans of country music in the nineties were hit over the head with the assertion that country music was one big family. Nothing demonstrated this mythos better than the all star jams that cropped up during the boom years.
There were some variants of this approach. A popular one found a veteran star teaming up with one or more of the boom artists to increase their chances of radio airplay. George Jones was big on this approach, with the most high profile attempt being “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.” Seventeen years later, it’s amazing to see how young everyone looks – even Jones himself!
Jones shared the CMA Vocal Event of the Year trophy for that collaboration with Clint Black, Garth Brooks, T. Graham Brown, Mark Chesnutt, Joe Diffie, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, and Travis Tritt. He’d continue with this approach by teaming up with his vocal chameleon Sammy Kershaw on “Never Bit a Bullet Like This”, and he recorded an entire album of his own songs as duets with mostly younger stars. The Bradley Barn Sessions was represented at radio with “A Good Year For the Roses”, which found him singing one of his best hits with Alan Jackson:
Among the legends, the only other one to be successful with this approach was Dolly Parton, who used collaborations with young stars to score consecutive platinum albums for the first and only time in her career. Her 1991 set Eagle When She Flies was powered by the #1 single “Rockin’ Years”, co-written by her brother and sung with Ricky Van Shelton:
That album also included a duet with Lorrie Morgan on “Best Woman Wins.” She upped the bandwagon ante on Slow Dancing With the Moon, bringing a whole caravan of young stars on board with her line dance cash-in “Romeo.”
That’s Mary Chapin Carpenter, Billy Ray Cyrus, Kathy Mattea, and Tanya Tucker in the video. Pam Tillis isn’t in the clip, but she sings on the record with them. Parton also duets with Billy Dean on that album on “(You Got Me Over a) Heartache Tonight.”
Her next collaboration was with fellow legends Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, but they couldn’t resist the temptation to squeeze in several younger stars in the video for “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.” Alongside veterans like Chet Atkins, Bill Anderson, and Little Jimmy Dickens, you’ll catch cameos from Mark Collie, Confederate Railroad, Rodney Crowell, Diamond Rio, Sammy Kershaw, Doug Stone, and Marty Stuart.
Parton scored a CMA award when she resurrected “I Will Always Love You” as a duet with Vince Gill:
And while it didn’t burn up the charts, her version of “Just When I Needed You Most” with Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski:
Tammy Wynette made an attempt to connect with the new country audience with her own album of duets, Without Walls. Her pairing with Wynonna on “Girl Thang” earned some unsolicited airplay:
Perhaps the most endearing project in this vein came from Roy Rogers. How cool is it to hear him singing with Clint Black?
The new stars liked pairing up with each other, too. A popular trend was to have other stars pop up in music videos. There’s the classic “Women of Country” version of “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”, for starters. Mary Chapin Carpenter sounds pretty darn good with Suzy Bogguss, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, Pam Tillis, and Trisha Yearwood on backup:
That’s a live collaboration, so at least you hear the voices of the other stars. But Vince Gill put together an all-star band for his “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away” video without getting them to actually play. That’s Little Jimmy Dickens, Kentucky Headhunters, Patty Loveless, Lee Roy Parnell, Carl Perkins, Pam Tillis, and Kelly Willis behind him, with Reba McEntire reprising her waitress role from her own “Is There Life Out There” clip.
My personal favorite was Tracy Lawrence’s slightly less A-list spin on the above, with “My Second Home” featuring the future superstars Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, and Shania Twain, along with John Anderson, Holly Dunn, Hank Flamingo, Johnny Rodriguez, Tanya Tucker, Clay Walker, and a few people that I just can’t identify.
For pure star wattage, it took the bright lights of Hollywood to get a truly amazing group together. The Maverick Choir assembled to cover “Amazing Grace”, and it doesn’t get much better than country gospel delivered in a barn by John Anderson, Clint Black, Suzy Bogguss, Billy Dean, Radney Foster, Amy Grant, Faith Hill, Waylon Jennings, Tracy Lawrence, Kathy Mattea, Reba McEntire, John Michael Montgomery, Restless Heart, Ricky Van Shelton, Joy Lynn White, and Tammy Wynette.
What’s your favorite of the bunch? Any good ones I missed?