In the modern era of country music, you have to move a lot of units to be considered a legitimate superstar. The first act to do so on a regular basis was Alabama, who had eight consecutive multi-platinum albums in a row in the first half of the eighties.
Since then, there have been a multitude of country artists who’ve accomplished the same feat, but despite the fact that it was a band that broke down the barrier, only one male band since Alabama has achieved similar success: Rascal Flatts.
Family connections helped this power trio get their start. Lead singer Gary LeVox and his cousin, Jay DeMarcus, each had a desire to be country musicians, but it was DeMarcus who went to Nashville first. After a stint in Christian band East Meets West, DeMarcus convinced LeVox to join him in Nashville.
DeMarcus joined Chely Wright’s band, which is where he met the final trio member, JoeDon Rooney. By that time, DeMarcus and LeVox were doing regular gigs at Printer’s Alley in downtown Nashville. One night, their guitarist didn’t show, so DeMarcus invited Rooney to perform with them. They were an instant hit, and when they couldn’t come up with a band name, an audience member suggested Rascal Flatts.
The band signed with Lyric Street in late 1999. The fledgling label had launched with projects by Lari White and SHeDaisy, but soon Rascal Flatts would become their flagship act. Success was immediate, with radio embracing all four singles from their self-titled debut album. A Nashville disc jockey was responsible for the release of “I’m Movin’ On” as the fourth single, giving it heavy play as a n album cut. It became their first huge hit, winning Song of the Year honors at the ACM Awards and powering their debut set to double-platinum status.
Over the next few years, they became a core act at country radio, scoring eleven #1 hits and selling nearly twenty million albums. Signature records released during this time include “Bless the Broken Road” and “What Hurts the Most.” Interestingly, both of those songs had been recorded by other artists, but adding their distinctive sound and trademark harmonies made these songs huge hits on both the country and pop charts.
As their career peaked in the mid-2000s, they were regularly nominated for Entertainer of the Year, while sweeping the CMA and ACM Vocal Group category for several years on end. They also became a powerful force on the road, ranking among the top-grossing acts of all genres.
Like many of their contemporaries, the pace of their record sales began to slow down, but even today, they remain a strong presence at both radio and retail. After switching from Lyric Street to Big Machine, the band received plaudits for their newest music, with critics noting a return to the more country arrangements of their earlier work and a move away from the arena pop sound that had become more prevalent.
Four generous hits collections were released in 2010, each one chronicling the entire career of a contemporary country music star. Individually, each double-disc set serve as the most expansive and thorough compilation for each artist. Taken together, they tell the story of country music over the last twenty years.
Alan Jackson 34 Number Ones
In the late eighties, Randy Travis did something that no other country star had done before. He became the top-selling country artist by a wide margin without making any musical concessions to pop or rock. In doing so, he tore up the old playbook. Suddenly, you could be a multi-platinum country artists without the added benefit of top 40 radio or accolades from the rock and roll press.
Thus began contemporary country music, the new paradigm that reached its commercial peak in the nineties, but has never come close to receding to its earlier status as a niche genre. A crop of young stars surfaced in 1989 and 1990, each one of them staking a claim to be the Haggard, the Jones, the Willie, the Waylon of their generation. Out of all of them, none struck a more perfect balance between artistic credibility and commercial viability than Alan Jackson.
Simply put, he is the most significant singer and songwriter of the past quarter century. So it’s no surprise that out of all of the country stars who’ve compiled #1 hit collections, Jackson’s set is the best, both in terms of overall quality and effectiveness in summing up an entire career.
Fact is, radio’s played nearly everything Jackson’s sent their way, and he’s demonstrated remarkably good judgment over the past twenty years. The highest of the high points – “Here in the Real World”, “Don’t Rock the Jukebox”, “Chattahoochee”, “Gone Country”, “Where Were You”, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” – aren’t just great records from their time period. They’re accurate representations as well, little time capsules that show Jackson as being centrally relevant to the genre while he was also making great music.
Today, with critical acclaim and commercial success becoming increasingly divergent pathways, 34 Number Ones serves as a powerful reminder that one need not sacrifice quality for radio airplay. Of the new tracks, Jackson’s cover of “Ring of Fire” doesn’t quite measure up, It’s certainly a competent reading, but Jackson’s already a legend in his own right. Just listen to “As She’s Walking Away”, the duet with Zac Brown Band that serves at the set’s bonus 35th number one. His mere presence elevates the track into greatness.
Tim McGraw Number One Hits
Jackson’s ascent into superstardom came at the peak of the new traditionalist movement. Tim McGraw got in just under the buzzer, breaking through a year before Shania Twain shifted the course of country music to a distinctively more pop sound. He’s since been able to maintain stardom by going with the flow of these changes.
At his best, few have been better than Tim McGraw, but Number One Hits documents his bookend years as a follower of trends. It’s the songs on either end of his hit run than are the weakest. Whereas Jackson has flirted with banality once in a while, McGraw has openly embraced it. He became a mega-star by alternating shoehorning the five-hankie weepfest “Don’t Take the Girl” between novelty songs like “Indian Outlaw” and “Down on the Farm”, all of which reek of the hat act herd mentality that was heading out of style in 1994.
But McGraw used his clout from those early hits to get access to better material, and his albums soon demonstrated a song sense that was unrivaled among the other new acts of the time, most of whom quickly faded away as pop ascended in the genre. The best of his biggest singles came over the course of the next decade. Classics like “Just to See You Smile”, “Please Remember Me”, “Angry all the Time” and “Live Like You Were Dying” were among the best songs on the radio.
For a while there, he could get just about anything into the top fifteen, but this collection focuses only on the chart-toppers. So instead of fantastic gems like “Can’t Be Really Gone”, “One of These Days”, “Red Ragtop”, and “If You’re Reading This”, this set features quite a bit of forgettable fare that hasn’t aged well. They may have topped the charts, but that doesn’t make “Not a Moment Too Soon”, “She Never Lets it Go to Your Heart”, and the particularly abysmal “Southern Voice” worthy of inclusion in a best-of set.
If they were able to suspend the concept to include a questionable dance remix of the #8 chart hit “Indian Outlaw” and the mediocre new hit “Felt Good on My Lips”, they might as well have just been more generous with the track listing and released The Very Best of Tim McGraw. His music has been far more compelling than this collection shows.
Dixie Chicks The Essential Dixie Chicks
The explosive crossover success of Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, and Faith Hill was in full swing in 1998, which left traditionalists hungering for a superstar alternative. In waltzed the Dixie Chicks, with a combination of musical credibility, traditional roots, and youthful appeal that instantly made them the darlings of the format. Over the course of two albums – 1998′s Wide Open Spaces and 1999′s Fly – they dominated radio, retail and the awards circuit.
Tracks from those two albums combine for fourteen of the thirty tracks of The Essential Dixie Chicks. All of the biggest hits are here, but chart success wasn’t the only determination for inclusion. Thank God for that, as less impressive top ten hits like “Cold Day in July” and “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” are left off, with the far more compelling “Heartbreak Town” and “Sin Wagon” in their place.
As good as their first two albums were, it was the 2002 masterpiece Home that truly solidified them as artists for the ages. Released at the height of O Brother mania, the timing couldn’t have been better for this acoustic album. “Long Time Gone”, “Landslide”, and “Travelin’ Soldier” all went top two, and the album swept the country categories at the 2003 Grammy Awards.
And then, the bottom fell out. Poorly chosen words about the president quickly overshadowed Home, and the princesses of country radio suddenly became pariahs, taking the burgeoning roots movement down with them. Radio slamming its door shut is what makes a hit-centered Chicks compilation impossible, and Essential Dixie Chicks wisely chooses to give equal representation to Home and its follow-up, the California country Taking the Long Way.
An excellent job is done of selecting the best album cuts from both collections, an especially difficult task with the latter album. Sure, it won five Grammys and sold well, but the platinum single “Not Ready to Make Nice” was the only real hit. Thankfully, we’re treated to gems like “Top of the World” and “Truth No. 2″ from Home and “The Long Way Around”, “Easy Silence,” and “Lubbock or Leave It” from Taking the Long Way.
And while a case could be made for some great tracks left off – “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”, “More Love”, and “Voice Inside My Head” come to mind – everything that’s here is essential listening. Then again, the Chicks could have randomly picked any 30 songs from the four albums represented here and still ended up with a great collection of music, so high has their standard of excellence been all along. How many other superstar country artists could do the same?
Brad Paisley Hits Alive
If the Dixie Chicks best represent the last gasp of lofty aspiration in mainstream country music over the past twelve years, Brad Paisley best represents the mediocrity the genre was willing to settle for. Rising to fame around the same time as the Chicks, Paisley was similarly touted as a traditional savior for the increasingly pop-influenced genre.
And for more than ten years, he’s lived up to the traditionalist part, rarely flirting with crossover sounds. Much like Alan Jackson, Paisley’s sound hasn’t changed much over time. But unlike Jackson, Paisley’s point of view hasn’t changed much either. He’s been releasing antiseptic, mostly dull radio fodder for most of his career, getting regular radio play with an endless stream of interchangeable love songs and party anthems.
Hits Alive attempts to assess his work to date, and it takes an odd approach. A disc of studio hits is paired with a disc of live recordings of his hits. Figuring out the guiding principle in song selection is near impossible. Some of his signature hits – “I’m Gonna Miss Her”, “Letter to Me”, “Waitin’ on a Woman” – appear only in live form. Songs that practically beg to be livened up, like “Ticks”, “The World”, and “Celebrity” – are only here in their studio incarnations. Bizarrely, “Alcohol” and “Mud on the Tires”, are presented in both forms.
The double dipping means early hits like “Who Needs Pictures”, “Wrapped Around”, “Two People Fell in Love”, and “I Wish You’d Stay” are omitted entirely. That’s a shame, because they’re all better than his string of condescending and slightly misogynist love songs that do make the cut, the worst offenders being “The World” and the jaw-dropping “Little Moments”, the latter providing a list of endearing traits that would be insulting if he was singing about his child, let alone his partner.
Thankfully, many of his best moments are included, most notably “Whiskey Lullaby” and “When I Get Where I’m Going”, two hits that have gone on to become genre standards in the years since their release. Plus, the live disc brings some unexpected treats. “Time Warp” showcases his stunning instrumental talent, while the hits “Water” and “American Saturday Night” truly do come alive on stage, making them sound better here than they did on the radio.
Of the four collections, Paisley’s may be the least impressive, but it’s still a decent representation of one of country music’s last superstars, and it speaks volumes about the creative holding pattern that still paralyzes the genre. Unless the spiritual successors to Alan Jackson or the Dixie Chicks come along, Paisley’s might be as good as it’s gonna get on country radio.
End-of-year lists abound, and we still have another on the way. But what about the best albums of 2011?
We’re in that super cool period of anticipation, where we wonder what the albums we know about will sound like, and hope that the albums that we don’t know about will be from artists who we can’t get enough of.
Right now, the announced albums that I’m most pumped for are the 2-CD live album from Todd Snider and the new studio album from Alison Krauss, both scheduled for release in early 2011.
Among the unannounced, I’m pining for new studio albums from Dwight Yoakam and Shania Twain. Feels like a lifetime since either had a proper album of new material.
If we’re getting into pipe dreams, I’ll add a new Dixie Chicks set into the mix.
This fall, there seems to be as many new albums from significant country artists as I can remember. Just look at Roughstock’s indispensable Fall 2010 Releases list.
New releases are on the way from no less than eight past CMA Entertainer of the Year nominees and winners, along with current top sellers Zac Brown Band, Billy Currington, Jamey Johnson, and Montgomery Gentry.
So head on over to see that list, then come back to answer this question:
What Fall 2010 CD Release are you most excited for?
For me, it’s no contest. I can’t wait to hear Sugarland’s The Incredible Machine. Their last studio set, Love On the Inside, is my favorite mainstream country album of the past five years, and I still haven’t gotten tired of the covers they included in their stopgap set Live On the Inside.
Plus, “Stuck Like Glue” is my favorite lead single from any of their albums so far, no small feat given my deep affection for “Want To.” Given that a new Dixie Chicks album comes along about as quickly as a Senator goes up for re-election, I need a fix of music from a really great country band, stat.
This Keith Whitley classic was recorded as part of a tribute album to the late country star. It became a hit all over again, perhaps because Krauss performed it in a near-whisper. The quiet arrangement matches the sentiment beautifully. – Kevin Coyne
Lawrence dishes on his ex’s cheating ways to her new potential lover. How did she get that way? He reveals that he’s the one who taught her everything she knows from the cheater’s playbook. Moreover, he seems regretful of her corruption. – Leeann Ward
Cowboy Take Me Away Dixie Chicks
1999 | Peak: #1
In a modern world where life can so easily feel cold and mechanical, love remains earthy and exciting and mysterious. It’s a window into a different world, one where we’re not defined by the predictables of our routine – the same stresses, the same cars and buildings – but by our core nature as people, our place in the greater fabric of Earth and, perhaps, heaven. On the surface, “Cowboy Take Me Away” sounds like just a sugar-sweet love song – I’ve even heard it called “pre-feminist” – but there’s something else going on here: a plea for life to have meaning again. – Dan Milliken (more…)
To continue Country Universe’s celebration of the nineties, I’m throwing in a nineties edition of iPod Check. The rules are simple: put your iPod on shuffle and list the first ten songs to pop up that were released in the nineties. They don’t have to be singles, and they don’t have to be country.
I’ve listed my ten songs below. Share yours in the comments, and check your shame at the door! (I’ve got 1994’s “Hakuna Matata” on my iPod, but sadly, it did not come up in shuffle.)
1. Sara Evans, “There’s Only One”
2. Michael Jackson, “Remember the Time”
3. Shania Twain, “You Win My Love”
4. Martina McBride, “O Come All Ye Faithful”
5. Dixie Chicks, “Am I The Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way?)”
6. Original Broadway Cast of Rent, “Seasons of Love”
Tritt gives a surprisingly but fittingly subdued performance on this cover of a Steve Earle song, telling the story of a woman who sometimes forgets that she’s sworn off men. I can never get enough of the incredibly cool arrangement. – Tara Seetharam (more…)
The hits come from all over the place here. Breakthrough hits from Trace Adkins and Carlene Carter join one-hit wonders Brother Phelps and George Ducas. And alongside crafty covers of songs by sixties rock band The Searchers and nineties country artist Joy Lynn White, you can also find tracks from three diamond-selling country albums.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #200-#176
Carrying Your Love With Me George Strait
1997 | Peak: #1
A traveler gets through his lonely nights on the sheer strength of love. It’s perhaps a little too saccharine for some, but the sweet melody and Strait’s understated vocals make the record work. – Tara Seetharam
A man sits around in a bar “talking ’bout the good old times, bragging on how it used to be.” Standard premise, but Black’s melancholy performance lifts the record to Haggardly heights. – Dan Milliken (more…)
As we did last year, it’s time to share our preferences for this year’s CMA Awards. Last year, Taylor Swift was the belle of the ball, winning four awards. Some long winning streaks came to an end, as Swift replaced both Kenny Chesney as Entertainer of the Year and Carrie Underwood as Female Vocalist of the Year. Lady Antebellum ended Rascal Flatts’ long run as top Vocal Group, and were the surprise winners of Single of the Year as well.
Once again. I’ve selected the five artists that I believe are most deserving of an Entertainer of the Year nomination. But first, let’s take a look at last year’s race:
Entertainer of the Year (2009)
Swift was victorious in her first nomination in this category. She competed against three previous winners: Kenny Chesney, who has gone 4 for 8 in this category; Keith Urban, who is 1 for 5; and the incomparable George Strait, who is 2 for 17. Brad Paisley lost for the fifth year, tying Kenny Rogers for the most nominations without a win.
As the numbers above show, this has been a largely static category for the past ten years. Only thirteen artists earned nominations from 2000-2009. The CMA noms can be very predictable.
But looking at radio and retail these days, there’s been a big changing of the guard. I think that this category more than any other should reflect that. I’m putting my personal tastes aside here, as there are only two artists I list that I actually listen to regularly.
Entertainer of the Year (2010)
The nominees should be:
Their second album has already spent 25 weeks at #1, and “Need You Now” was such a big hit that it’s led to pop airplay for “I Run to You”, the award-winning hit from their debut album. It would be an early nomination in terms of their career, but Alabama and Dixie Chicks were elevated to this category even faster, so there’s precedent for vocal groups.
She’s always had the critical success, and she’s always sold records. But she’s selling them a heck of a lot faster these days and radio is suddenly, shockingly, spectacularly on board. It’s time for the CMA to catch up with the ACM, who have been away ahead in acknowledging this artist.
Being nominated the year after winning is not a given, but it’s the norm. While it was common in the seventies, it’s been very rare in recent years. Shania Twain (1999) was the last winner to not receive another nomination the following year, with the others being: Dolly Parton (1978), Mel Tillis (1976), John Denver (1975), and Charlie Rich (1974).
So she’s probably a lock for a nomination, and she deserves one. Though things have been quiet on the Swift front for the past couple of months, she had a massive tour and sold a ton of records during the eligibility period.
She really should be enjoying her third nomination this year, but a (flimsy) case could be made for her not making the ballot in 2008 and 2009. But no nomination this year would be inexcusable. She had a very successful tour, continued to dominate radio, and her third album is quickly approaching double platinum. At this point, she shouldn’t just get a nomination. She should win.
Zac Brown Band
Their live performances are well-regarded, radio is fully on board, and their first major label album is double platinum. A case could be made for Brad Paisley getting this spot, but sales of his new album have fallen quite a bit short of previous efforts. The same goes for other perennial nominees Keith Urban, George Strait, and Kenny Chesney.
My dad was passionate about many things, and in my memory, he’s defined by two of them: c0llecting vintage toys and loving music. Earlier today, my mother and I attended Toy Story 3. He loved the first two films, and it was a way to get closer to him in spirit this Father’s Day.
I couldn’t let this day end without using my humble little corner of the internet to celebrate some of his favorite songs. A love for country music was something that my father shared with my mother, and thanks to long car trips as child, this love eventually rubbed off on me. This morning, my mother put on the country classics Music Choice channel and it was playing their song: “Blanket on the Ground” by Billie Jo Spears.
It’s one of those songs that always seemed to be on the mix tapes that my parents listened to. But there are a wealth of country hits that I associate with just Dad. Some of them I always loved. Some of them I didn’t care for at the time. Some I openly disdained and wished he’d never play again. All of them are now among my favorites because they remind me of him.
So in honor of Father’s Day, here are some of my Dad’s favorite country songs. Share your dad’s favorites in the comments!
Alan Jackson, “Livin’ On Love”
From my mom’s point of view, K.T. Oslin’s “Hold Me” perfectly encapsulated their marriage. For my dad, it was “Livin’ On Love.”
Clint Black, “Nobody’s Home”
My dad loved Clint Black, especially his first two albums. This was the hit he played to death when Killin’ Time was his album of choice.
Johnny Cash, “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky”
Sure, my dad loved “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Five Feet High and Rising.” But he also loved Cash’s campier hits, like “One Piece at a Time” and this chestnut.
Dixie Chicks, “Travelin’ Soldier”
No matter what was going on in the room, my dad would stop what he was doing to watch this video. As a Navy veteran, this song really hit home for him.
Dwight Yoakam, “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere”
Another guy that Dad couldn’t get enough of. This was a song that I thought he played too much, never caring for it at the time. Now it’s one of my favorites of his.
John Anderson, “Seminole Wind”
He bought the album for “Straight Tequila Night”, but this quickly emerged as one of his all-time favorite songs.
John Conlee, “Common Man”
I do believe that I’d never have discovered this great vocalist if his greatest hits set wasn’t one of the very first CDs my father purchased. I still remember the “Priceless Music Priced Less” logo on the front.
Johnny Horton, “Sink the Bismarck”
Another hits collection dad played the heck out of. I always thought this was Horton’s biggest hit because Dad played it so much. I remember being shocked to find “Honky Tonk Man”, which I knew as a Dwight Yoakam song, was on there, too.
Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler”
He didn’t care for the man’s love songs or most of his pop hits, but he had this album on vinyl and I only remember hearing him play the title track.
Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard, “Pancho and Lefty”
Another one of Dad’s first CD purchases. I always thought the opening music sounded like a TV theme song.
Marty Robbins, “Big Iron”
Dad loved the Western subgenre of country music, at least as performed by Marty Robbins.
And finally, it’s not a country song, but it was his favorite song, and I’ll forever associate it with him. Amazing how I used to groan when I heard him playing it on our living room jukebox again, and now I never get tired of it because it’s him.