Unless the Dixie Chicks suddenly decide to put out some new music, Nickel Creek just nailed down the title for most exciting reunion of the year. In February.
The progressive bluegrass sound that Nickel Creek pioneered more than a decade ago has surfaced all over mainstream music in recent years, with everyone from Mumford & Sons to the Civil Wars walking through the doors they flew open with their innovative musicianship. So the coolest thing about “Destination” is that they’re not picking up where they left off. Rather, this is what one could imagine Nickel Creek doing once everybody else caught up to what they used to be doing: moving on, and pushing forward with fresh new sounds.
“Destination” is the most alive record I’ve heard so far this year. There’s a rush of energy that was always present in their live act, as opposed to their more measured sound on record. Enjoy it now. You’re going to be sick of hearing records that sound like this by artists not quite as good for the next few years, where the songwriting won’t be as sharp, the harmonies won’t be as haunting, and the mandolin won’t be as proudly prominent.
A lot of country music lovers want to claim Mumford & Sons and Philip Phillips as their own.
There’s a joy, a rootsiness, and killer musicianship in the best records of those acts, despite them not being what we’d traditionally consider country artists. Lady Antebellum has never had much connection to what’s historically been considered country music, either. So it’s not entirely surprising that their path from pure, glossy pop to a more grounded, earthy sound, still takes its cues from the top forty music scene.
I give them credit for stretching themselves a bit on “Compass”, though you can certainly hear the strain it’s taking for them to do so. Their approach to harmonization doesn’t quite fit with the sound of the record. To use the Dixie Chicks as an illustration, they’re using Taking the Long Way harmonies against a Home musical backdrop.
They need to go back and study the three-part harmonies on the latter album if they want to continue in this direction. It’s too much of a hodgepodge right now to work.
Written by Mikkel Eriksen, Ross Golan, Emile Haynie, Tor Erik Hemransen, Ammar Malik, and Daniel Omelio
2013 turned out to be a banner year for new music, full of powerful songwriting, inspired collaborations, and truly cohesive albums that would rank among the best releases in any given year. Many of this year’s top twenty would’ve ranked much higher in other years, and many of us writers couldn’t even include all the works we deeply enjoyed this year on our personal lists, making our collective list worthy of the heartiest endorsement we could ever give.
Here’s to a great 2013, and a greedy wish that 2014 will be just as wonderful on the music front. As always, share your thoughts and personal favorites in the comments.
#20 Rubberband Charlie Worsham
Individual rankings: #7 – Tara; #12 – Leeann
Like Chris Young two years ago, Worsham’s voice is a commodity that instantly elevates the new artist to an orbit above the male radio regulars. His is warm and cleanly expressive, lending itself best to songs that nurture his upper register, like the jaunty “Want Me Too,” haunting “Someone Like You” or those invigorating opening bars of “Could It Be.” If only life imitated “Nashville” and its fictional stars’ uncomplicated brand of pop country, Worsham might just be the next Luke Bryan and “Rubberband” –the album’s finely produced, genre-bending title track– his next big hit. - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Rubberband,” “Someone Like You,” “Young to See,” “Could it Be”
#19 Silver Bell Patty Griffin
Individual rankings: #5 – Kevin; #13 – Jonathan
It was a banner year for Patty Griffin fans, as two new studio albums were released. Silver Bell is the oddity of the two, in that it was recorded thirteen years ago and languished in the vaults (and on cherished bootlegs.) For those who have discovered Griffin during her past few years as an Americana goddess, Silver Bell was her final attempt at a mainstream album for A&M Records, and it is fantastic. She finds a happy medium between the rawness of her debut album, Living with Ghosts, and the hard edge of its follow-up, Flaming Red. Two of the best tracks, “Truth #2″ and “Top of the World”, would become two of the best tracks on Home, the landmark Dixie Chicks album from 2002. Emmylou Harris joins in on harmony for “Truth”, but the true revelation is the original recording of “World”, which is darker and more haunting than the excellent renditions that the Chicks, and Griffin herself, would later record. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Top of the World”, “One More Girl”, “Mother of God”
#18 Honky Tonk Son Volt
Individual rankings: #4 -Sam; #18 – Jonathan
As one of the defining bands of alt-country, Son Volt have rarely taken a straightforward approach to the country genre, but they go full-on Bakersfield on Honky Tonk. It’s a move that suits the band well, as the laid-back arrangements on tracks like “Tears of Change” and “Hearts and Minds” balance frontman Jay Farrar’s trademark intensity. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Hearts and Minds,” “Bakersfield,” “Seawall”
In many instances, the replacement of a lead vocalist has spelled disaster for a band’s career. In the case of the SteelDrivers, it’s the beginning of a whole new chapter as Gary Nichols ably fills the shoes of the departed Chris Stapleton. But great singers and great pickers still need great songs, and from the haunting opener “Shallow Grave” to the piercing melody of album closer “When I’m Gone,” Hammer Down sets a consistent standard that never wavers. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Hard Way Home,” “Keep Your Heart Young,” “Heart’s Content”
#16 My Favorite Picture of You Guy Clark
Individual rankings: #3 – Ben; #10 – Leeann
Guy Clark has already secured his place in country music history – not to mention a place in the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame – but on his first new studio effort since 2009, the songwriting icon is still finding ways to keep things fresh. On My Favorite Picture of You, Guy Clark addresses current events (“Heroes,” “El Coyote”) as well as personal loss (the achingly gorgeous title track, a tribute his late wife Susanna), his absorbing lyrics delivered through a wise and weathered voice which feels like that of an old friend. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “My Favorite Picture of You,” “El Coyote,” “Heroes”
#15 The Highway Holly Williams
Individual rankings: #3 – Tara; #7 – Leeann
Producer Charlie Peacock treads a dangerous line on The Highway, with arrangements so sparse they’d easily deflate a lesser artist’s work. But he and Williams work exceptionally well together on her third album, leaning on her character-filled voice to fill in the spacious canvas. The album’s themes are heavy and often morose, but Williams doesn’t weigh them down; instead, she approaches them with weathered sensibleness, using only the ragged edges of her voice to convey the underlying drama. As for that family of hers, if there’s a role for them on The Highway, it’s only to help sketch out the small, poignant details of her characters’ stories, like in the vivid history of her maternal grandparents’ eternal love in “Waiting on June.” - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Drinkin’,” “The Highway,” “’Til It Runs Dry,” “Waiting on June”
It was unlikely that the Pistol Annies would match their self-titled debut, a bullet of an album that flew in the face of everything manicured, polite and conventional in 2011. Their sophomore album, then, is a little less of a shock, but just as much of a raucous hoot. The ladies are still challenging societal norms (“Being Pretty Ain’t Easy”), lamenting and –surprisingly often– conceding to small-town marital discord (“Unhappily Married”), and, of course, dancing with their demons (“I Feel A Sin Coming On”). The breadth of their combined talent and mission is almost uncontainable, so misfires are expected (“Girls Like Us”); in the end, though, the album cements the trio’s place as the genre’s bravest truth-spitting chicks. - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “I Feel A Sin Coming On,” “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Unhappily Married,” “Dear Sobriety”
#13 High Top Mountain Sturgill Simpson
Individual rankings: #1 – Jonathan; #2 – Sam
Far too often, traditional-minded country acts fetishize the genre’s past and end up sounding like mimics of great artists, rather than becoming great artists in their own right. Sturgill Simpson, an acolyte of Waylon Jennings’ outlaw period, adopts a too-country-for-country throwback style on his debut, High Top Mountain. But the deceptively shrewd perspective that informs “Railroad of Sin,” “Water in a Well,” and “Old King Coal” is modern through and through, making Simpson one of country’s most exciting new voices. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Railroad of Sin,” “Hero,” “You Can Have the Crown,” “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean”
Not only is Patty Griffin a very deservedly respected songwriter of intelligent and often gut wrenching songs, she has what many sing-songwriter types don’t have–a sublime voice that pierces right through one’s heart and soul. Join those elements together and it’s no wonder that her first album of original songs since 2007 is at least as good as anyone would dare to hope it would be.
From the sweet cover of “Mom and Dad’s Waltz” to the powerful “Not a Bad Man”, Griffin’s album is a collection of masterful and intelligent songs that will make you think and want to think some more. - Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Mom and Dad’s Waltz”, “Irish Boy”, “Not a Bad Man”
Once again, Alan Jackson sets out to do a vanity project and it ends up as good as his best mainstream work ever was. His foray into bluegrass yields wonderful results, both in the form of compelling new material (“Blue Ridge Mountain Song”, “Mary”, “Blue Side of Heaven”) and well-chosen covers (“Wild and Blue”, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”) Like Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard before him, Jackson’s crossover from country to bluegrass shows just how little distance there is between the two, at least when the country artist in question has deep roots in the first place. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Blue Ridge Mountain Song”, “Knew All Along”, “Mary”
The Mavericks reunion may have been one of the more unexpected comebacks in recent country music history, but it should have come as no surprise that In Time was as excellent as it was. “That’s Not My Name” showed their classic country influences, but tunes like “Lies” and “Come Unto Me” blended in some rock, soul and Latin feel too. “Come Unto Me,” with its horn section and Raul Malo’s searing vocals, was the sexiest song in country music in 2013. - Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Come Unto Me”, “Lies”, “That’s Not My Name”
Another quirky Norah Jones project, eh? Sounds about right; guess it’s been about six months since the last one. Oh, she got the guy from Green Day in on it? Well, that’s…huh. What? They’re covering an Everly Brothers album of traditional country and folk songs from the 50′s? They’re just, like, taking time out of their busy schedules to lovingly coo through a bunch of covers of the Everly Brothers’ covers, perhaps to help pass on the Everlys’ important legacy to younger generations, or perhaps just because they’re fans and love music and know Starbucks will sell it regardless? Who do these recording artists think they are — artists? - Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Long Time Gone”, “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail”, “Kentucky”
It may not be typical for a steel guitarist to receive top billing alongside a legend of Vince Gill’s caliber, but it’s certainly warranted in this case as the comforting whine of Paul Franklin’s pedal steel proves the perfect match for Gill’s distinctive tenor. It’s a delightful musical history lesson as the two lovingly cover ten beloved Owen and Haggard classics. Their takes are neither stale recreations nor scattershot attempts at modernizing and reinventing – rather, Bakersfield feels like a simple, unaffectedly sincere love letter to a unique and important era of country music. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Together Again,” “I Can’t Be Myself,” “Nobody’s Fool But Yours,” “Holding Things Together”
#7 Old Yellow Moon Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell
The ease and friendship between Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell is undeniably palpable on their first full duets album, which is a huge part of what makes this project a blow out success. While the songs are mainly covers of their own songs, as in the sprightly “Bluebird Wine”, the new interpretations are fresh and feel like brand new songs, as is also the case with the covers of other people’s work, as proven by the sublime “Dreaming My Dreams.”
From the jaunty opener of “Hanging Up My Heart” to the gorgeous closer of the title track and all points in between, the entirety of Old Yellow Moon is a masterful collaboration between two brilliantly talented old friends. - Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Hanging Up My Heart”, “Dreaming My Dreams”, “Bluebird Wine”, “Here We Are”
The first duets album by the Tim & Faith of Texas country lands, and the world immediately becomes a slightly better place. It’s an LP filled with smart Robison writing, golden Willis drawl, and enviable marital cuteness. True love is out there, guys. Listen to “Dreamin’” and sigh along with me. - Dan Milliken
The best thing about Jason Isbell’s richly drawn stories from the underbelly of America is that he manages to humanize some quite despicable people without trying to make them likable at the same time. There are very few anti-heroes to be found here. Their stories are compelling, but you still root for the good guys and gals, and it’s rarely Isbell that is singing in their voice, preferring the challenge of bringing the often loathsome to life.
Which isn’t to say that’s the only role he plays, as there are hints of redemption in some of the best numbers. The man haunted by the “Songs that She Sang in the Shower” might just treat the next one right, and there is nobody I enjoyed getting to know better this year than Andy in “Elephant”, a barroom louse who didn’t stick around when the girl was at her best, but is now by her side as she’s dying of cancer, singing her classic country songs and sweeping her hair up off the floor after putting her to bed. – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Elephant”, “Songs that She Sang in the Shower”, “Live Oak”
Kacey Musgraves set some mighty high expectations for herself to live up to with the universally acclaimed dark horse hit “Merry Go ‘Round,” but her major label debut release delivers in full. Same Trailer Different Park announces the arrival of one of country music’s most distinct and potent new voices, marked by keen-eyed observation, maturity beyond her years, and a refreshing willingness to tell it like it is.
The dawning optimism of “Silver Living” and “Step Off” is made all the more meaningful by the fact that Musgraves never shies away from themes of heartache, despondence, and frustration. But even the bitterest moments are sweetened by accessible melodies, comforting arrangements, and a down-to-earth vocal style.
In a genre that has long prided itself on being “real,” Musgraves has become one of a precious few mainstream artists to actually live up to that ideal, and by so doing has laid bare just how contrived the format has become. The fact that Same Trailer Different Park found the mainstream audience it richly deserved feels like an answered prayer. Don’t blow this now, country radio.- Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Merry Go ‘Round,” “Keep it to Yourself,” “Follow Your Arrow,” “It Is What It Is”
A beautifully drawn character sketch, Like a Rose showcases Ashley Monroe’s gift for using authentic first-person detail to give depth to her distinctive, unconventional narratives. The persona Monroe projects over the course of the album’s brief song cycle is one of a young woman who has been scarred by the events in her past but who uses those scars as the jumping-off point for compelling stories rather than letting them define who she is or who she aspires to be. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Like a Rose,” “Two Weeks Late,” “Used,” “The Morning After”
#2 Spitfire LeAnn Rimes
Individual rankings: #1 – Tara; #2 – Dan, Ben; #3 – Leeann; #8 – Kevin, Jonathan
Rimes subtitled Spitfire as the “truth in no particular order,” an apt description for an album whose truth shines like a prism, flashing different, nuanced colors at us with each twist and turn. If Spitfire is meant to narrate Rimes’ messy history –her “truth” as so many have come to define her by–, it succeeds; but, the gifted artist that she’s become, Rimes knows that truth is more than intentions and events and aftermath. It’s in the intimate honesty that spills out from the smallest corners of thought, whether from places of regret or passion, shame or fearlessness, or in those boundless grey areas in between. Spitfire has it all, packaged in the most colorful, intriguing performances of the year. - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Borrowed,” “I Do Now,” “Who We Really Are,” “What Have I Done””
#1 12 Stories Brandy Clark
Individual rankings: #1 – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Ben; #2 – Tara; #4 – Jonathan; #5 – Sam
Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories was shopped around to several record labels, but none of them would commit to taking on the album, even the ones that admitted that it was the best album they’d heard in years.
Since it’s impossible to reasonably imagine why label executives who loved the album wouldn’t jump at the chance to put Clark on their roster, perhaps they assumed that the album was just too smart and good for the mainstream music scene they put their dollars behind. While this is certainly a simple, and maybe even naive, view of things, other explanations simply evade me. Fortunately, however, somebody did believe in Brandy Clark’s music and the album was organically promoted as an independent release.
Even after listening to the album at least a zillion times since first receiving a promo copy well before its official release, it is a challenge to find the proper words to appropriately describe this nearly perfect debut album. Clark’s sharp, clear eyed songs are supported by crisp and satisfying productions and solid, warm vocals. Without judgment, but with intelligence, she observes and explores the tougher parts of life such as unfaithfulness, divorce and various forms of mental anguish; all the while keeping the album accessible.
As much as can and should be written about this album, the most direct thing to be said is that this was the clear favorite of the very diverse Country Universe staff, with most of us selecting it as our Number One album and none of us ranking it below number five. The rest of this list shows how far apart we often are on tastes; Brandy Clark is one artist we can all get behind. - Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Pray to Jesus”, “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven”, “Take a Little Pill”, “Hungover”
The nominations for the 56th Annual Grammy Awards have been announced. Taylor Swift has the top nomination connected to country music, earning her second nomination for Album of the Year. She took home the award four years ago for Fearless.
Here are the general category nominees, along with all country and country-related categories:
Album of the Year
Sara Bareilles, The Blessed Unrest
Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
Kendrick Lamar, good kid m.A.A.d. city
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, The Heist
Taylor Swift, Red
If Taylor Swift wins, she will be the first country-related artist in history to win the category twice with individual projects. Alison Krauss also has two victories, one for her collaboration with Robert Plant (Raising Sand, 2009), and another for her contributions to the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack (2002.) The award has only been won by country artists in two other years: Glen Campbell for By the Time I Get to Phoenix (1968), and the Dixie Chicks for Taking the Long Way (2007).
Record of the Year
“Blurred Lines” – Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell Williams
“Get Lucky” – Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams
“Locked Out of Heaven” – Bruno Mars
“Radioactive” – Imagine Dragons
“Royals” – Lorde
For the third time in the last eight years, no country or country-related records make the cut. Only four country-related winners have triumphed in this category, but three of them have been in the last few years. Olivia Newton-John won for “I Honestly Love You” in 1975, followed much later by the Dixie Chicks for “Not Ready to Make Nice” in 2006; Robert Plant & Alison Krauss for “Please Read the Letter” in 2009; and Lady Antebellum for “Need You Now” in 2011.
Song of the Year
“Just Give Me a Reason” – Jeff Bhasker, P!nk, and Nate Reuss
“Locked out of Heaven” – Phillip Lawrence, Ari Levine, and Bruno Mars
“Roar” – Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin, Bonnie McKee, Katy Perry, and Henry Walter
“Royals” – Joel Little and Lorde
“Same Love” – Ben Haggerty, Mary Lambert, Ryan Lewis, and Curtis Mayfield
For the third straight year, country is shut out of the top songwriting category, a streak that began after the writers of Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” won in 2011.
Best New Artist
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Kacey Musgraves is the latest new artist to represent country music in this category, which has become a nearly annual occurrence since LeAnn Rimes was nominated and won back in 1997. Previous country winners also include Bobbie Gentry (1968), Carrie Underwood (2007) and Zac Brown Band (2010).
Best Country Album
Jason Aldean, Night Train
Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom
Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park
Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story
Taylor Swift, Red
Despite the presence of four big, established stars, only Taylor Swift has actually earned a victory in this category. She won in 2010 for Fearless. She contended again in 2012 with Speak Now, which lost to repeating victors Lady Antebellum, who won two years in a row for Need You Now (2011) and Own the Night (2012). Kacey Musgraves earns a nomination for her debut album, the first artist do so since 2005, when Gretchen Wilson contended with Here For the Party.
Best Country Solo Performance
Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
Hunter Hayes, “I Want Crazy”
Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel”
Blake Shelton, “Mine Would Be You”
Since this category combined the solo categories into one, this award has been one by Taylor Swift (“Mean”) and Carrie Underwood (“Blown Away.”) Lambert is the only previous winner in a predecessor of this category.
Best Country Duo/Group Performance
The Civil Wars, “From This Valley”
Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill, “Don’t Rush”
Little Big Town, “Your Side of the Bed”
Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, “You Can’t Make Old Friends”
There’s really only one hit here, but there are plenty of former Grammy winners scattered among this category. In case you’re wondering, the answer is no, they didn’t win a Grammy for “Islands in the Stream.”
Best Country Song
“Begin Again” – Taylor Swift
“I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, and Jimmy Yeary
“Merry Go ‘Round” – Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves, and Josh Osborne
“Mine Would Be You” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Deric Ruttan
It’s not too common for people to receive double nominations, but here there are four songwriters competing against themselves: Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves.
Best American Roots Song
“Build Me Up From Bones” – Sarah Jarosz
“Invisible” – Steve Earle
“Keep Your Dirty Lights On” – Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott
“Love Has Come From You” – Edie Brickell and Steve Martin
“Shrimp Po-Boy, Dressed” – Allen Touissant
This category is brand new this year, encompassing songs from all of the subcategories in the American Roots field: Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk, and regional roots music.
Best Americana Album
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Old Yellow Moon
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Love Has Come For You
Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, Buddy and Jim
Mavis Staples, One True Vine
Allen Touissant, Songbook
Collaborations dominate this category, which is populated with many previous Grammy winners. Emmylou Harris won this award twice, back when it was called Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Best Bluegrass Album
The Boxcars, It’s Just a Road
Dailey & Vincent, Brothers of the Highway
Della Mae, This World Oft Can Be
James King, Three Chords and the Truth
Del McCoury Band, The Streets of Baltimore
Del McCoury Band are the only returning victors in this category, winning back in 2006 for The Company We Keep. Perhaps because of the broad voter base, this category has been dominated by acts with explicit ties to country music, including multiple wins by Ricky Skaggs, Jim Lauderdale, and Alison Krauss & Union Station, and one-off victories by Patty Loveless and Dolly Parton. This year is the second in a row without crossover contenders; last year’s winner was the Steep Canyon Rangers for Nobody Knows You.
Best Folk Album
Guy Clark, My Favorite Picture of You
The Greencards, Sweetheart of the Sun
Sarah Jarosz, Build Me Up From Bones
The Milk Carton Kids, The Ash & Clay
Various Artists, They all Played for Us: Arhoolie Records 50th Anniversary Celebration
A tribute to Guy Clark earned a nomination in this category last year, and now Clark himself is in contention for the prize. None of the acts in contention have won in the folk fields before.
Also of note, the Pistol Annies set Annie Up earned nominations for engineer Chuck Ainlay and mastering engineer Bob Ludwig in the Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical category. It competes against Daft Punk, another album mastered by Ludwig, along with sets by Alice in Chains, Queens of the Stone Age, Andrew Duhon, and Madeline Payroux.
Since its inception, the top honor an artist could be given at the Country Music Association awards is this one: Entertainer of the Year. Originally a revolving door of winners, the winner in early years was often not even nominated the following year. In 1981, Barbara Mandrell became the first artist to win the award twice. Alabama succeeded her with a three year run from 1982-1984. Fourteen years later, Garth Brooks became the first artist two win four times, a feat later matched by Kenny Chesney in 2008.
Here’s a look back at the award from the very beginning, along with some facts and feats about the category and its nominees.
One year after being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Eddy Arnold was named the very first Entertainer of the Year at the inaugural CMA awards in 1967. Don’t assume it was a sympathy vote. Arnold had three #1 hits in the twelve months leading up to the ceremony, as he was in the middle of his impressive mid-sixties comeback, a period best defined by the 1965 classic, “Make the World Go Away.” He remains the only member of the Hall of Fame to win this award after being inducted.
Glen Campbell was a big awards favorite in 1968, with “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Gentle On My Mind” both dominating the Grammy awards earlier that year. His win in this category foreshadowed bigger things, as he soon became a network variety star, while also scoring major country and pop hits with “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston.”
Johnny Cash’s career was rejuvenated on the strength of two live prison albums, the latter of which produced the massive Shel Silverstein-penned smash, “A Boy Named Sue.” His victory came in a year that marked the beginning of his network variety show and had him dominating the country singles charts, spending ten combined weeks at #1 with “Sue” and “Daddy Sang Bass.”
Merle Haggard was a mainstay in this category from the beginning, nominated in each of the first seven years of the CMA Awards. His victory in 1970 coincided with his commercial peak, with signature hits “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Okie From Muskogee” helping him secure his only win in this category.
The last of four consecutive years where the Male Vocalist winner matched the Entertainer winner, Charley Pride went home with both awards in 1971. A winner on his fourth nomination, his popularity skyrocketed upon the release of “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” which was climbing the charts at the time of the awards ceremony.
Instead of attending the awards show, Loretta Lynn’s husband Mooney went hunting. He didn’t want to watch her lose, but he missed watching history unfold as she became the first woman to win Entertainer of the Year. Lynn’s victory came on the heels of both solo hits like “One’s on the Way” and her popular duets with Conway Twitty.
Tom T. Hall
Today he’s best known for Hee Haw, the country music variety show that he co-hosted, and it’s no coincidence that he won while the show was in its prime. Still, Clark is also one of country’s most admired legends, and his legacy goes far beyond the television show that showcased his extensive musical and comedic talents.
The massive success of “The Most Beautiful Girl” and “Behind Closed Doors” helped Charlie Rich win this award. It was a long time coming, as Rich toiled in obscurity despite critical acclaim for his work. He would continue to score big hits on the country and pop charts over the next couple of years, at one point charting hits on different labels at the same time.
John Denver’s victory in this race led to the most infamous moment in CMA history. Though he claimed it was due to medication later on, presenter Charlie Rich seemed to be making a furious statement against the pop crossover artists dominating country music when he opened the envelope, read it, and then lit a cigarette lighter and burned the envelope. The paper went up in flames as he derisively snarled the winner’s name, “My friend, Mister John Denver.” Poor John, accepting via satellite, was clueless to what was going on at the Opry house, and graciously accepted his award.
This 2007 Hall of Fame inductee won this award just as he was changing labels. Tillis first gained notoriety for his remarkable songwriting talent, but eventually he was scoring enough hits to earn a place in this category. He would go on to have several more big hits after winning this award, earning another nomination in this category two years later.
Ronnie Milsap dominated the CMA Awards, becoming one of its most frequently honored performers during the formative years of the awards show. He finally won the big prize on his third try, powered by the success of his classic hit, “It was Almost like a Song.”
Her famous quote – “I’m not leaving country. I’m taking it with me” – must have held some water with the Nashville establishment, as Parton won this award at the height of her pop crossover success with “Here You Come Again,” the title track of her first platinum album. The front of her dress popped open before she went up to receive the trophy, prompting her to quip, “That’s what I get for trying to put fifty pounds of mud in a five pound bag.”
He never won Male Vocalist of the Year, but superstar Willie Nelson was given his due by the CMA in 1979 when they awarded him Entertainer of the Year. While it wasn’t his biggest year on the charts, residual goodwill from Stardust and his collaborations with Waylon Jennings helped carry him to victory.
Charlie Daniels Band
Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers
She had a few big hits in 1980, like “Crackers” and “The Best of Strangers.” But it was her incredibly popular variety show with sisters Louise and Irlene that truly showcased her versatility as an entertainer, securing the first of two wins in this category.
Oak Ridge Boys
Despite sharing the category with four artists who had never won this award, Barbara Mandrell became the first artist in CMA history to win Entertainer of the Year for the second time. Credit the continued popularity of her television show and the biggest hit of her career, “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”, which featured a guest turn by fellow nominee George Jones.
Oak Ridge Boys
The band that laid the groundwork for all other country bands that followed, Alabama set a new bar for commercial success in the early eighties. The eligibility period included the release of their biggest-selling studio album, and also two of their signature hits: “Mountain Music” and “Love in the First Degree.”
As their studio albums sold in the millions, every single Alabama released to radio was hitting #1, a stretch that would eventually include 21 consecutive chart-toppers. They repeated in this category on the strength of hits like “Dixieland Delight” and “The Closer You Get.”
Oak Ridge Boys
A mere three years after Barbara Mandrell made history by being the first artist to win two Entertainer awards, Alabama went her one better and won three. They remain one of only two acts to win this award three years in a row, doing so as their hits “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler)” and “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” dominated the airwaves.
Few country artists command as much respect as Ricky Skaggs, a consummate singer and musician. Skaggs’ victory in this category signaled the resurgence of traditional country music, as he was the first winner since 1976 to not have achieved crossover hits on pop radio.
One of the most popular new traditionalists of the mid-eighties, McEntire achieved her commercial breakthrough with “Whoever’s in New England”, which was aided in popularity by her first of many high-concept music video clips. McEntire would eventually become the most nominated woman in history, scoring ten nominations over eleven years.
Hank Williams, Jr.
When Hank Williams, Jr. won the Music Video award the previous year, he reminded voters, “I make audio, too.” They finally got around to acknowledging his meaningful contributions to the genre, awarding him the first of two Entertainer trophies in 1987.
Hank Williams, Jr.
Hank Jr. may have waited a long time for some CMA love, but once it came, it was in droves. He won Album of the Year the same night he repeated in this category. His biggest hit of the year, “Young Country”, featured guest appearances by up and comers like Highway 101 and Marty Stuart.
Ricky Van Shelton
Hank Williams, Jr.
Three years after his most recent Male Vocalist trophy, megastar George Strait was named Entertainer of the Year. He would go on to have one of his biggest years at radio, with two multi-week #1 singles in the twelve months that followed his victory.
Ricky Van Shelton
While Randy Travis dominated the Male Vocalist race, George Strait was given his due again in the Entertainer category. He wore an Entertainer of the Year cowboy belt on the cover of Livin’ it Up, perhaps giving him good luck toward his second victory. He remains the most nominated in this category, and is only the second Hall of Famer to receive a nomination after being inducted into the Hall.
A mere year after winning the Horizon award, Garth Brooks was the Entertainer of the Year at the CMA Awards. He was breaking every sales record in the book by that point. Shortly before the ceremony, he became the first country artist to enter the overall album chart at #1, leading to a media frenzy that gained unprecedented exposure for both Garth and the genre he represented.
Given that he was already the biggest-selling country artist the world had ever seen, it was no surprise that Garth Brooks won his second Entertainer of the Year trophy in 1992. His continued popularity was fueled by sold out live shows that soon led to network specials showcasing his unique brand of arena country.
Brooks & Dunn
Vince Gill capped off an amazing night at the 1993 CMA Awards with his first victory in this category. It was his fifth win of the night, as he also took home Male Vocalist, Song, Album and Vocal Event. As he was also the show’s sole host, the collective exposure pushed him to multi-platinum sales.
Brooks & Dunn
The soft-spoken Gill won for a second year, which was no big surprise given his widespread popularity in Music City. He also went home with Album and Male Vocalist the same night, giving him a stunning fourteen trophies in only five years.
Brooks & Dunn
As one of the evening’s top nominees, Alan Jackson brought his parents as his special guests. After losing in every other category, he expressed relief that he finally won something, as going home empty handed would’ve been embarrassing. Jackson would eventually become one of the organization’s most awarded artists.
Brooks & Dunn
They were already winners of five CMA awards, due solely to their domination of the Vocal Duo category. But in 1996, they finally won another race, and it was a big one. Brooks & Dunn remain the only duo to win this award, with The Judds and Sugarland being the only other duos to receive nominations.
Brooks & Dunn
In a year when all five nominees had won this award before, it was Garth Brooks who returned to the winner’s circle, tying Alabama’s long-standing record of three victories in this category. Adding to the sense of déjà vu, this was the third year in a row where all five nominees were the same.
Brooks & Dunn
As hard as it is to believe that there were any records left for him to break by 1998, Garth Brooks shattered another one, becoming the first artist in the history of the CMA to win four Entertainer of the Year awards. By this time, Garth had already sold more than 60 million albums, and while he has yet to win this award again, he remains the top-selling solo artist of all time in the United States.
The odds seemed against Shania Twain, as she had never won a CMA award before and the last woman to win was Reba McEntire thirteen years earlier. Fittingly, McEntire was on hand to present the trophy to Twain, who won on the strength of Come On Over, which eventually became top-selling country album of all time and the top selling album of the decade from any genre.
The Dixie Chicks capped off a stunning three-year run at the CMA Awards with this victory, one of nine that they racked up since 1998. Within those three years, their first two albums each sold over ten million copies, and the band was widely credited for championing country radio and traditionalism while other top acts were crossing over to pop radio.
Brooks & Dunn
After winning two Male Vocalist and two Album of the Year honors in the previous three years, Tim McGraw finally won the CMA’s top award. It was a satisfying acknowledgment of an artist who’d had his talent underestimated in the first few years of his stardom, but built up a reputation for his stellar taste in choosing material.
Brooks & Dunn
Jackson’s win in 1995 came as he was reaching his commercial peak. In the years that followed, Jackson remained a successful and well-respected artist that got less attention every year when it came time to hand out awards. Then came the one-two punch of “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” and “Drive (For Daddy Gene)”, both of which were viewed as the very embodiment of all that makes country music unique and essential. This was one of five awards he was honored with that night.
Brooks & Dunn
Although the ACM had chosen Toby Keith as their standard bearer a few months earlier, the CMA stuck with the previous year’s winner Alan Jackson. By 2003, Jackson had evolved into an elder statesman for the genre, but still managed to stay relevant with hits both clever (“It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”) and poignant (“Remember When.”)
Brooks & Dunn
Chesney’s long dry spell at the CMA’s came to a satisfying end as the superstar collected both Entertainer and Album of the Year trophies. He had been charting for eleven years before finally winning his first CMA award.
One of the most surprising and endearing wins in the history of this category, a shocked and humbled Urban accepted this award in New York City. He couldn’t have picked a better night to bring his Australian parents to the ceremony.
Brooks & Dunn
It’s pretty rare to come back and win this award for a second time, as most multiple wins have been consecutive in this category. But Kenny Chesney joined Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson as the only other artists to pull it off when he won in 2006, a club that would later be joined by Taylor Swift.
Chesney entered the elite company of Garth Brooks, Alabama, and Alan Jackson with his third victory in this category. Rascal Flatts, meanwhile, became the first group since the Dixie Chicks to score back-to-back nominations, a feat also accomplished by Alabama and the Oak Ridge Boys.
As Sugarland became only the third duo in history to receive a nomination and George Strait extended his record number of nominations to sixteen, Kenny Chesney tied Garth Brooks for the most wins in this category with his fourth victory. His popularity at radio and retail was remarkable, but it was Chesney’s highly attended summer stadium tours that earned him these wins.
Taylor Swift both made history and prevented it with her win in this category. She simultaneously became the youngest artist ever and the first female solo artist in ten years to take home the prize. She also kept Kenny Chesney from becoming the sole all-time champion in this category, as he remains tied with Garth Brooks with four wins to date.
Zac Brown Band
2010 shook up the category, with three first-time contenders in the running for the crown for the first time since 1981. Despite all the new blood, sixth time proved to be the charm for Brad Paisley, who finally won this award after five consecutive losses. Paisley’s persistent popularity helped him earn the nod in a year where the two previous winners weren’t even nominated.
Thirty years after Barbara Mandrell became the first woman to win this award twice, Swift became the second to do so. She won the award on the strength of her third set, Speak Now, which showcased her growing maturity as a songwriter and her growing appeal beyond her teenage and young adult fan base.
One of the most surprising wins in CMA history, few saw Blake Shelton’s victory coming. But it isn’t too surprising when you consider the number of artists who parlayed network television exposure into a win in this category. Perhaps in this new era of media saturation and minimal album sales, television may once again become a deciding factor when choosing the genre’s top star every year.
George Strait’s farewell tour helped return him to the category for the first time since 2009, earning him a record-extending eighteenth career nomination. Strait joins previous winners Taylor Swift (2009, 2011) and Blake Shelton (2012) in attempting a return to the winner’s circle. Luke Bryan earns his first nomination, just months after winning the ACM trophy. Jason Aldean, meanwhile, is hoping to get lucky the third time around.
Facts & Feats
(4) – Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney
(3) – Alabama, Alan Jackson
(2) –Vince Gill, Barbara Mandrell, George Strait, Taylor Swift, Hank Williams, Jr.
(2) – Garth Brooks (1991-1992, 1997-1998), Vince Gill (1993-1994), Barbara Mandrell (1980-1981), George Strait (1989-1990), Hank Williams, Jr. (1987-1988)
(18) – George Strait
(12) – Alan Jackson
(11) – Brooks & Dunn
(10) – Reba McEntire
(9) - Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney
(8) - Vince Gill, Merle Haggard, Brad Paisley
(7) – Keith Urban
(6) – Barbara Mandrell, Tim McGraw, Willie Nelson, Brad Paisley, Charley Pride, Keith Urban
(5) – Alabama, Loretta Lynn, Ronnie Milsap, Kenny Rogers
Most Nominations Without a Win:
(5) – Kenny Rogers
(4) – Toby Keith, Randy Travis
(3) – Jason Aldean, Waylon Jennings, The Judds, Oak Ridge Boys
Winners in First Year of Nomination:
Eddy Arnold (1967), Garth Brooks (1991), Glen Campbell (1968), John Denver (1975), Charlie Rich (1974), Taylor Swift (2009), Mel Tillis (1976), Shania Twain (1999), Keith Urban (2004), Hank Williams, Jr. (1987)
CMA Entertainers of the Year Who Have Never Won the ACM Award:
Eddy Arnold, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Roy Clark, John Denver, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw, Ronnie Milsap, Brad Paisley, Charlie Rich, Blake Shelton, Ricky Skaggs, Taylor Swift, Mel Tillis, Keith Urban
ACM Entertainers of the Year Who Have Never Won the CMA Award:
Luke Bryan, Mac Davis, Mickey Gilley, Freddie Hart, Toby Keith, Kenny Rogers, Carrie Underwood
Country music singer-songwriter Zane Williams had his first taste of mainstream success in 2006 when Jason Michael Carroll took his song “Hurry Home” into the Top 20. Having already made inroads in the regional country market of his home state of Texas, the Abilene native is currently attempting to break through to a national audience with his fourth album Overnight Success. Amid preparations to embark on his first nationwide radio tour (in an RV with his wife and two children along for the ride), Williams found the time to call Country Universe to chat about his current single and album.
Ben Foster: What can you tell us about the creative process behind your single “Overnight Success”?
Zane Williams: Well, that was a pretty easy one to write because it’s so autobiographical. Once I got the idea, I had a lot of subject material to pull from – just from my own life, and from all the other musicians I know. It was a little tricky to get it sort of figured out. I wanted it to be a ten-step process. Pretty much all those things that I talk about in the song I’ve actually lived out in my own life. I didn’t borrow ten grand from my uncle to make my first CD, but I borrowed $17,000 from my grandparents to make my first CD. All the stuff that the song talks about.
Does the album have any central unifying themes?
I don’t think the songs do really. I think the main theme that sort of ties it all together is just the fact that I wrote all the songs, and so I think each one of them sort of shows a different side of my personality, and I kind of think of each one as being kind of its own mini-movie, and they’re all pretty different from each other.
Like an exploration of who Zane Williams is, basically?
Yeah, basically. Just all the different sides of my writing and just how I hear country music. You got your honky-tonk song, and then you got your kind of rocking country song like “Hands of a Working Man,” and you got your acoustic-y bluegrass sittin’ on a front porch type song with “The Simple Things,” love song with “Kissin’.” You hear all those types of song on the radio. You don’t always hear that kind of variety from just one artist, but as a writer, I like to write all those different styles.
Do you have any favorite songs or lyrics on this album, or does that feel like choosing between your children?
I think maybe “On a Good Day,” especially the first verse, the one about “steam rising from my coffee cup like a prayer going up.” I was really feeling the mojo that day. I think I put some good imagery in that song. Metaphors and similes and imagery and stuff, you know. I was feeling sort of poetic that day, so I’m kind of proud of that one, and then “While I Was Away” is real personal for me because it’s written for my boy, and I think that one’s got some mojo on it too. But yeah, I like ‘em all, though. That’s true.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
Man, there are so many.
Living or dead, past or present.
I think Garth Brooks wrote some killer songs. Of course, not all of his hits did he write, but he did write some of those hits. He wrote some really, really good ones. I still feel like Garth Brook’s greatest hits is just like the pinnacle for me. They’re just all so iconic. Like I said, he didn’t write ‘em all, but he picked them.
He knows how to write ‘em, and he knows how to pick ‘em.
Yeah, exactly. Alan Jackson is somebody who I really have a lot of respect for as a writer because he’d just keep it simple and keep it country and classic, and yet still not be too cliché and still be personal and original. He’s just a good’n. He showed that sweet spot. Of Nashville writers, Dennis Linde is one of my favorites. He passed away not too long ago. He wrote a lot of songs. He was kind of a recluse that lived off by himself and wrote by himself. His songs always had a lot of character to them, like “Bubba Shot the Jukebox” and [sings] “Made her the queen of my double wide trailer.” He wrote “Goodbye Earl” for the Dixie Chicks. All the hit songs just were fun. And then he wrote [sings] “In John Deere green, on a hot summer night…” So he was one of my favorite writers that wrote a lot of stuff back in the nineties. And then you got the guys like Radney Foster or Guy Clark, kind of singer-songwritery, little bit more folksy-type.
Yeah, Guy Clark’s new album is killer.
Yeah, they’re so varied, so good in their own way.
As a Texan, what are your thoughts on the current Texas country music scene, and what Texan artists do you enjoy listening to?
Well, I think like any scene it’s got its good music and bad music, and it’s got good music that’s not popular and you wonder why, and it’s got bad music that is popular and you wonder why. But it’s also got a lot of great stuff too. I think the main thing I like about it is just that you don’t have to be on a major label. There’s fewer gatekeepers. You don’t have to get permission to work with somebody. You pretty much just get your band together and sort of band together and go play shows and just work hard. So I’m thankful for the Texas community. If it weren’t for that, I don’t think I’d have a career right now because I’m always a little bit of a square peg in a round hole in Nashville. I’ve never had any luck getting a major label deal or whatever, and in Nashville you either get that major label deal or you’re just waiting tables. Or you get a publishing deal, but I did that, and I wasn’t happy just being that because I’m more than just a songwriter. I want to be an artist and I want to perform. Down here in Texas I’ve got a scene that enables me to do that.
I’d say some of my favorites on the Texas scene would be the Randy Rogers Band. They’re just cool, man. They’re really good. I like the Turnpike Troubadours. Singer-songwriters, I like Sean McConnell a lot. Those are some of my favorites. I guess one of my favorites is the new guy up-and-comer William Clark Green.
So what’s next for you?
Well, a lot of stuff, man. We’re basically kicking it into fifth gear, you know. I’m leaving the day after tomorrow and I’m taking my family, and we’re going in an RV that we borrowed from a friend, and we’re going on a twelve-day radio tour. On this twelve-day radio tour we’ll be going through Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi up to Nashville, and then spending a few days in Nashville, and then we’ll go through Bowling Green up to Lexington we’re I’ve got some family, and then we’ll be coming back down hitting a bunch of stations in Tennessee, and then going home by way of Arkansas and Oklahoma, hitting stations as we go. So anyway, it’s my first nationwide radio tour. “Overnight Success” is my first nationwide radio single. We’ve got a video for “Overnight Success” that’s coming out. We’ve been working it to the Texas charts for a couple months now. It’s in the Top 10 on the Texas charts. And that’s just the first single, man. Everybody that’s on my team and my record label – management, publicists, and radio promoters and all those people – we feel like there’s a lot more than just one single on our album. There’s two, five or six, so many to choose from.
So the next year or two is just gonna basically be the busiest I’ve ever been, just working my tail off playing shows every weekend and visiting as many radio stations as I can during the week and just really kicking it in into a higher gear than I’ve ever been in. I’ve never really had a good team behind me. It’s really the first time I’ve ever had the help of good publicists and radio promoters and everybody setting up a bunch of interviews for me and just helping to get the word out. We’re hoping to basically make Overnight Success a reality. I’d like this to be my breakout album, and I’m gonna do anything and everything in my power to get the word out about it.
In a year that has already brought the deaths of immortal talents like George Jones, Slim Whitman, Patti Page, and Jack Greene, not to mention the untimely loss of Mindy McCready, it is understandable that the recent news regarding Randy Travis is having the country music fans collectively holding their breath with nervousness and dread.
There is something distinctly different about how I am processing the news about Randy Travis. The thought of losing him is inextricably linked with a feeling that we’d be losing an essential core of the country music that I fell in love with more than two decades ago. Now, I remember Randy Travis from when I was a child. What little kid wouldn’t be in love with a catchy song like “Forever and Ever, Amen”?
By the time I was old enough to discover country music on my own, he was already something of an elder statesman, despite his young age. As I delved into the history of the genre I was falling in love with, widely accepted concepts like Travis starting the new traditionalist movement and Storms of Life being one of greatest albums of all time had taken root. The truth is, traditionalism never really went away, and even during the Urban Cowboy years, artists like Ricky Skaggs and Emmylou Harris were having commercial success with roots-based music.
But Randy Travis didn’t just have a bit of success. He sold millions of records in a time where almost no country acts were doing so, and certainly none who didn’t incorporate pop or rock sounds into their work. His massive success was the tipping point that made the nineties boom inevitable, as labels saw new acts like Clint Black and Alan Jackson as being capable of superstar status, instead of just being genre favorites that sold moderately well.
He never really got the credit he deserved for this, with the industry treating him like old news despite him continuing to score hits and sell platinum throughout the nineties and early 2000′s. There are so many great singles that I was around for when they first came out. “Before You Kill Us All.” “Look Heart, No Hands.” “Out of My Bones.” “Whisper My Name.” “If I Didn’t Have You.” “Better Class of Losers.” “The Hole.” “Three Wooden Crosses.” “Dig Two Graves.” The list goes on and on.
He’s also responsible, through no fault of his own, for what I call country music’s Messiah Complex. After he revolutionized the widespread appeal for traditionalism, which led to a solid decade of traditional country artists being signed and succeeding wildly, the sounds began to drift back to pop and rock flavorings. Since this shift, every slightly twangy newbie has been anointed as the savior of country music. Lee Ann Womack, Brad Paisley, Dixie Chicks, Joe Nichols, Josh Turner, Jamey Johnson, and Gretchen Wilson have all been shouldered with the burden of being the next Randy Travis.
This has led to deep disappointment when their second or third album struggled, or even worse, to feelings of betrayal when these selected stewards veered away from traditional country music. All that pressure, and not a one of them even started off with an album in the same league as Storms of Life, though Johnson and the Chicks came remarkably close.
I can’t get my head or my heart around the thought that his contemporary titan might not be with us anymore. I can’t stomach the coverage that focuses more on his personal troubles than his incredible body of work and peerless impact on country music as a whole.
Please use the comments to share your own thoughts and feelings about Randy Travis. Also, I recommend reading the Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists piece that Leeann Ward wrote a few years ago. It’s an excellent place to start for those who are looking to discover the his rich and diverse catalog.
-Spent-150×150.jpg” alt=”” width=”150″ height=”150″ />Thirty years ago, Madonna released her first single. In the years that followed, she dominated radio formats across the dial, but never released a single targeting the country market. Until now.
“Love Spent” opens with a banjo riff that recalls the Dixie Chicks at their twangiest. That countriest of country sounds plays alongside the synthesizers and strings that are more typical of a Madonna record. But much like everyone’s favorite country crossover artist, what’s most revealing are the lyrics that target a past beau. In this case, it’s an ex-husband, not an ex-boyfriend, who made off with her money and
“You played with my heart, ’till death do we part, that’s what you said,” she pleads, after wryly noting that “if my name was Benjamin, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.” It fits so neatly into the well-worn themes of love gone wrong that have always defined the genre, making it an instant country classic.
It may seem a stretch to imagine Madonna finding favor at country radio. Not because of her pop sound, of course, but because of her age. At 54, she’s a quarter-century older than the handful of female artists that get country radio airplay, despite being able to run rings around them in terms of talent. Her facing off against those whippersnappers should produce enough drama to make network television scribes green with envy.
I know, I know. It’s a stretch to pretend that Madonna could realistically compete on the country charts. Despite any surface similarities between the throbbing dance beats of “Love Spent” and, say, the current #1 country single, there’s one key difference that’s certain to sink Madonna’s chances in today’s country market.
Her record has a banjo on it.
Written by Madonna, William Orbit, Jean-Baptiste, Priscilla Hamilton, Alain Whyte, Ryan Buenida, and Michael McHenry
Billboard unveils new methodology today for the long-standing Hot Country Songs, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and Hot Latin Songs charts. Each receive a major consumer-influenced face-lift, as digital download sales (tracked by Nielsen SoundScan) and streaming data (tracked by Nielsen BDS from such services as Spotify, Muve, Slacker, Rhapsody, Rdio and Xbox Music, among others) will now be factored into the 50-position rankings, along with existing radio airplay data monitored by Nielsen BDS. The makeovers will enable these charts to match the methodology applied to Billboard’s signature all-genre songs ranking, the Billboard Hot 100.
On the surface, this seems like a good idea. After all, the country singles chart included both sales and airplay data for decades, until
switching to airplay-only in 1989. Declining availability of retail singles made this change necessary.
Since the digital market emerged, I’ve been an advocate for bringing sales data back into the mix. There have been a few songs that were very popular with country audiences that radio didn’t embrace, like “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, “Hurt”, and “Not Ready to Make Nice”, but were mainstays on country video outlets and sold plenty of digital downloads alongside impressive album sales. The digital singles market also indicated the budding popularity of acts like Miranda Lambert and Eric Church, who have since become core radio acts.
So what’s the problem with the change? This:
The immediate beneficiaries of this week’s methodology change are Taylor Swift, Rihanna and Mumford & Sons.
Swift, who holds down the top two slots on Hot Country Songs with “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Red.” Her new country radio single “Begin Again” jumps 37-10. The pop-crossover No. 1 title ranks at No. 36 on Country Airplay (but also gets points associated with its pop-crossover play) and No. 1 on Country Digital Songs, while “Red” is absent from the Country Airplay list, but ranks No. 2 on Country Digital Songs. “Begin Again” appears at No. 29 on Country Airplay and No. 3 on Country Digital Songs.
There are so many problems here. First, and probably worst, pop airplay is now counting for the country genre chart. This week’s “#1 country song” would’ve been #36 if the methodology hadn’t changed. A song that was most notable for being the first song that country radio refused to play by Taylor Swift, because it had no business being on country radio in the first place. It is not a country hit that crossed over to pop. It’s a pop hit that failed to cross over to country.
#2 isn’t even a country single. It’s an advance download track previewing Swift’s new album. It will drop like a stone next week, much like it will on the Hot 100, where it enters at #6. But the Hot 100′s breadth is able to absorb tracks like this more easily, and it is almost impossible to get that high without at least some radio support. The #2 country single of the week wasn’t played on country radio this week.
Billboard says it’s modeling the new genre charts after the Hot 100, much like the way the genre album charts mirror the Billboard 200:
The move to the Hot 100-based formula will ensure that the top-ranked country, R&B/hip-hop, Latin and rock titles each week will be the top titles listed on each genre’s songs ranking. This will be in line with how the Billboard 200 albums chart aligns with the albums charts for each corresponding genre. Because of the switch to new methodology, the week-to-week movements on the charts for some songs (in either direction) could be quite dramatic.
Until now, only country stations contributed to the Hot Country Songs chart, or R&B/hip-hop stations to Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs; the same held true for Latin and rock. The new methodology, which will utilize the Hot 100′s formula of incorporating airplay from more than 1,200 stations of all genres monitored by BDS, will reward crossover titles receiving airplay on a multitude of formats. With digital download sales and streaming data measuring popularity on the most inclusive scale possible, it is only just the radio portion of Billboard chart calculations that includes airplay from the entire spectrum of monitored formats.
Big mistake. Albums sales are album sales. If x sells more than y, it’s higher on the album chart. Apples to apples. Each genre singles chart has its own idiosyncrasies, reflecting the different ways that music is received by the audience.
Despite all the new methods of delivery, country music’s primary method of distribution remains the radio. It may be the only thing left that is identifiably “country” in mainstream music. The vast majority of country artists do not pursue the pop market in lieu of the country market. At most, they pursue pop as well as country, but usually wait until the song’s a hit at their home format first.
The big crossover hits of years past – “Need You Now”, “You’re Still the One”, “Before He Cheats” – would’ve done very well under this new format, but would likely have spent more time at #1 when they were dominating top forty radio and the song was already a recurrent at country stations. Instead, they went #1 on the country chart when country radio was playing them, then flew up the pop charts a few weeks later, while a new single was hitting the country market.
This new chart methodology is bad enough as it is now. But what will happen when the labels realize the only way to have a #1 country hit is to get your song to be a pop hit, too?
There are so many other problems with this, including the increased challenges of breaking new country acts and the likelihood that digital single releases will now become more strategic than ever. (Remixes! Acoustic versions! Buy them separately so they each count as their own sale!)
I guess I just don’t see the point of having a country chart at all if it isn’t going to measure just the country market.
Since bringing back Recommend a Track proved so popular, I’m resurrecting another CU oldie but goodie: the iPod check.
I’ve only recently discovered the Most Played feature on iTunes, since it never had any relevance until iPods were large enough in memory to sync all of my music. So going back to early 2011, I have a lengthy list of the songs I’ve played the most.
So today’s iP0d check: List your most-played song from twenty different country artists.
You can access this info by going to your own Most Played list and adjusting the number of songs on it – I use 500 for mine – or you can just go to Music and sort by number of plays. Or you can just pick twenty artists at random and list your most played song for each. We’re easy here. (This would also work in Spotify, from what I hear.)
Alan Jackson – So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore (40)
Crystal Gayle – Why Have Your Left the One You Left Me For (39)
George Strait – Meanwhile (39)
Lee Ann Womack – I May Hate Myself in the Morning (39)
Aaron Tippin – Whole Lotta Love on the Line (38)
I’m surprised that some of my most played artists overall, like Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, and Tim McGraw, don’t have that one big song that I play excessively. Also, at least half of the songs above aren’t what I would call my favorite song by the given artist. How about you?