Today is International Women’s Day. Historically speaking, country music has never enjoyed a reputation for being socially progressive.
For the general public, the definitive statement the genre made was “Stand By Your Man.” That Tammy Wynette classic is often cited as country music’s counterpoint to the women’s liberation movement, although Wynette wrote the thing in fifteen minutes without any agenda in mind. She just needed a song to sing.
I generally consider the classic country era to have ended with the seventies, preceding the Urban Cowboy and New Traditionalist movements. What follows are some of the best deliberate statements made by country artists during those years in support for women’s rights. Some were big hits. Some were not. But they were all ahead of their time and are still interesting to listen to today.
Although Rhiannon Giddens has been a fixture on the Americana circuit as the frontwoman for the terrific Carolina Chocolate Drops, it’s on her solo debut, Tomorrow Is My Turn, that Giddens truly announces herself as an artist. On a shrewdly chosen collection of songs that draw from a diverse sample of American roots music, Giddens and producer T Bone Burnett showcase a fearless approach to genre that never once allows easy signifiers to interfere with her forceful and intuitive interpretations.
2014 was a banner year for country music albums. In addition to the predictably solid entries from the Americana, folk, and bluegrass scenes, some excellent albums also surfaced from the unlikeliest of sources: mainstream, radio-friendly contemporary country artists!
Here are our twenty favorite albums from 2014. Fingers crossed that 2015 is as good or better than this year has been.
Jennifer Nettles That Girl
KJC #8 | LW #16
A confident, intelligent solo project that washes away all of the bitter taste left by Sugarland’s preceding studio album, The Incredible Machine. Nettles manages to remind us what was so appealing about the trio-turned-duo in the first place, while also staking out her own musical territory that has room for independence anthems alongside wry, humorous commentary on society and, of course, palpably vulnerable heartbreak numbers. – Kevin John Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Me Without You”, “Know You Wanna Know”, “Jealousy”
As 2014 comes to a close, the Country Universe staff has been collectively impressed by the number of quality albums that were released this year. How many of those albums, however, will we still be listening to in twenty years?
We have that benefit of hindsight for the year 1994, and we’ve compiled our twenty favorite studio sets from that year. At their time of release, some of our favorites were comeback albums from veteran artists, some were from current artists reaching new artistic and commercial peaks, and some were debut sets from artists that went on to become mainstays on country radio or in the Americana music scene that was just coming together twenty years ago.
What they all have in common is that each and every one of them still sounds great today, and they collectively show the wide breadth that the country music landscape was transforming into as the genre reached wider levels of popularity than it had ever seen before.
#20 Randy Travis This is Me
BF #11 | KJC #15 | LW #19
Travis’ legendary status was practically secure by 1994, but This is Me shows an artist neither resting on his laurels nor struggling to keep up with the young new talent of the era. The album serves up one solid song after another, with its best tracks delivering clever new takes on signature country themes, thus further advancing an already respectable legacy. – Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Before You Kill Us All”, “This is Me”, “The Box”
Our Best of 1994 Singles List kicks off today with the bottom quarter of our top forty. The list was compiled by weighing each individual writer’s choices, with preference given to songs that appeared on multiple lists. Each writer’s individual ranking is listed under the songwriter credits.
Bonus retro fun: Check out those cassette singles covers!
#40 “Livin’ on Love”
Written by Alan Jackson
SG #14 | JK #23 | BF #37
Country music has, historically, given voice to those disenfranchised by poverty, validating and finding the value in the struggles of economic hardship. What elevates the appropriately bare-bones narrative of “Livin’ on Love” is the warmth and real sense of empathy in Jackson’s performance. – Jonathan Keefe
Despite the Grammys and even the ACM’s demonstrating more consistent taste over the past few years, the CMA’s remain the most significant industry awards that honor country music. This year’s slate of nominees gives the organization an opportunity to build on the credibility of last year’s George Strait victory. His win for Entertainer saved a dismal show in its closing minutes.
Here’s our take on this year’s contenders:
Entertainer of the Year
George Strait – Kevin, Jonathan, Tara, Ben
George Strait – Jonathan, Kevin, Tara, Ben
Kevin: I’d settle for a Miranda Lambert victory, as she had an amazing year. But my first choice is George Strait, who deserves a fourth trophy for that record-breaking final concert. The rest of these nominees have either won before or still seem to have their best days ahead of them. There will never be another George Strait again.
Jonathan: The appalling sense of entitlement Jason Aldean has shown in his seemingly endless campaign of adult temper-tantrums disguised as interviews since these nominees were announced makes it all the more satisfying that the voters didn’t exclusively consider commercial and touring stats when voting for this award. I think that will likely continue with the final ballots, giving Strait the win here as a final send-off– a win that, as Kevin said, Strait’s last concert fully justifies based on even Aldean’s logic.
Tara: I have a feeling I’ll be pulling for Lambert next year, but 20 months after seeing it, I’m still high on Strait’s phenomenal farewell show. He deserves this.
Ben: Why not? Miranda will have plenty more shots at it, but this could be our last chance to see George Strait accept a CMA Entertainer of the Year trophy. Let the cowboy ride away in style.
This year’s CMA nominees are the best in years, with multiple nominations for Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, and Brandy Clark. Country radio may still be shunning women, but their embrace by CMA voters suggests that the industry knows who is really leading the way in the genre these days.
Entertainer of the Year
Who’s In: Miranda Lambert, Keith Urban
Who’s Out: Jason Aldean, Taylor Swift
George Strait, a surprise winner last year, is nominated again in a year that includes his record-shattering final concert. Miranda Lambert’s domination of this year’s nominations extends to the big category, where she competes for the first time since 2010.
The biggest crossover star that country music has ever known, Kenny Rogers was among the biggest stars of any genre in the seventies and eighties, becoming a worldwide icon and one of the genre’s finest ambassadors.
Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Rogers started off as a rockabilly artist in the mid-fifties, as part of a band called the Scholars. Though he was not the lead singer of the band, Rogers pursued a solo career when they disbanded. When that proved unsuccessful, he joined a jazz trio called the Bobby Doyle Three. They did reasonably well on the concert circuit, but when Rogers again pursued a solo career after they folded, he was not successful.
A big step up from her last few projects, Dolly Parton’s Blue Smoke is her most balanced album since Backwoods Barbie. While it lacks cohesion due to so many different styles being used, there’s a solid entry from every kind of Dolly – country Dolly, pop Dolly, mountain Dolly, gospel Dolly, duet-with-fellow-legend Dolly. While it isn’t likely to be anyone’s favorite Dolly Parton album because of this, it’s also unlikely that any fan of hers won’t find something here that reminds them of why they became a fan in the first place.
“Me and the Wildwood Rose” was always one of my favorite Carlene Carter tracks. Back when the original recording was released in 1990, it had a wistful nostalgia for the grandmother that she had lost. In 2014, all of the other folks mentioned in the song, including her little sister “the Wildwood Rose”, have also passed on. The new version is so heavy with grief, it is only Carter’s effervescent spirit that keeps it from being too heavy.
Speaking of grief, Rodney Crowell’s “God I’m Missing You” is a gut-wrencher. Widows don’t often get the chance to speak in pure poetry: “Time stretches to shape you right out of thin air. But it can’t hold the image. If I blink, you’re not there. God I’m missing you.” For me, it’s the highlight of an excellent album, with his best songwriting since The Outsider. Lucinda Williams recorded it before him, and she does it well.
Parton’s latest set is a welcome return to form, and it features compelling covers of songs by Bob Dylan and Bon Jovi. But the highlight for me is “Banks of the Ohio”, an oft-recorded standard that she breathes new life into by framing it with a narrative device that has her retelling the story being told to her. This allows for Parton to speak in the male voice of the murderer, and still infuse the song with her trademark empathy. (She’s never shied away from a suicide number, but homicide really isn’t her style.)
So we still have to wait from some country lady besides Olivia Newton-John to fully embrace the murderess within her, but until then, the stunning harmonies and heartfelt vocal of Parton has newly minted this treasured classic.
That’s what I’m listening to. What are you listening to?