Tag Archives: Dolly Parton

The Best Albums of 2014

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

#20
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”

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The Twenty Best Albums of 1994

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.

Randy Travis This is Me

#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”

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The Best Singles of 1994, Part 1: #40-#31

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!

Alan Jackson Livin' On Love

#40
“Livin’ on Love”
Alan Jackson

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

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CMA Awards 2014: Staff Predictions and Picks

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:

George Strait ACMEntertainer of the Year

Should Win:

  • Luke Bryan
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait – Kevin, Jonathan, Tara, Ben
  • Keith Urban

Will Win:

  • Luke Bryan
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait – Jonathan, Kevin, Tara, Ben
  • Keith Urban

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.

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2014 CMA Nominations

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.

George Strait ACMEntertainer of the Year

  • Luke Bryan
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait
  • Keith Urban

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.

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100 Greatest Men: #17. Kenny Rogers

Kenny Rogers100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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.

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Album Review: Dolly Parton, Blue Smoke

Dolly Parton Blue Smoke

Dolly Parton
Blue Smoke
stars-312

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.

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What are You Listening to? – 2014 Edition

There have been a lot of new releases in the past few weeks.  What tracks are resonating with you the most?

Here are three of my current favorites, all of which have been recorded before:

Carlene Carter Carter Girl

Carlene Carter, “Me and the Wildwood Rose”  

from the album Carter Girl

Listen

“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.

Rodney Crowell Tarpaper Sky

Rodney Crowell, “God I’m Missing You”

from the album Tarpaper Sky

Listen

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.

Dolly Parton Blue Smoke

Dolly Parton, “Banks of the Ohio”

from the album Blue Smoke

Listen

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?

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2014 Grammy Awards: Staff Picks & Predictions

The Country Universe staff has picked and predicted the 2014 Grammy Awards below, strange bunch that they are. Chime in with your thoughts, and catch the show on Sunday at 7 p.m. CST.

daftpunk-randomaccess-vinyl_grande-1.jpg?v=1368726630Album of the Year

Should Win:

  • Sara Bareilles, The Blessed Unrest
  • Daft Punk, Random Access Memories  – Kevin
  • Kendrick Lamar, good kid m.A.A.d. cityJonathan
  • Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, The Heist
  • Taylor Swift, Red

Will Win:

  • Sara Bareilles, The Blessed Unrest
  • Daft Punk, Random Access Memories  – Kevin, Jonathan
  • Kendrick Lamar, good kid m.A.A.d. city
  • Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, The Heist
  • Taylor Swift, Red

Kevin: With electronic music so mainstream now, it would be wise and timely for NARAS to acknowledge the excellent comeback of one of its pioneers, especially as the year’s best country albums (Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, etc.) and the year’s best rap album (Kanye West) didn’t score nominations in the top category.

Jonathan: Lamar and Daft Punk would both be worthy winners of an award that rarely seems to go to one. Hip-hop and R&B have notoriously struggled in the general field in recent years, so Daft Punk’s cachet with the rock contingent should give them the edge over Swift, who didn’t score the across-the-board support many were expecting from her this year. If the voters are feeling especially timid, though, watch out for “Brave” yelper Bareilles as a spoiler.

Bruno-Mars-LockedOutOfHeavenRecord of the Year

Should Win:

  • “Blurred Lines” – Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell Williams
  • “Get Lucky” – Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams – Kevin, Jonathan, Tara
  • “Locked Out of Heaven” – Bruno Mars
  • “Radioactive” – Imagine Dragons
  • “Royals” – Lorde – Dan

Will Win:

  • “Blurred Lines” – Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell Williams – Tara
  • “Get Lucky” – Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams
  • “Locked Out of Heaven” – Bruno Mars – Kevin, Jonathan, Ben
  • “Radioactive” – Imagine Dragons
  • “Royals” – Lorde – Dan

Kevin:  “Get Lucky” was retro and modern at the same time, featuring the charismatic Williams.  That guy makes everything better.  I’m guessing Mars will get it because he’s the most established and arguably is overdue for a big win.

Dan: “Royals” was the most refreshing to me. Winner feels like a real toss-up, though.

Jonathan: Prevailing logic as to why hip-hop tracks have fared so poorly in this category is that NARAS voters are still hell-bent on rewarding live instrumentation, so it’s hard to imagine something as spare as “Royals” winning, even if it’s the most distinctive choice. “Get Lucky” would get my vote, but look for Bruno Mars to head off to his Super Bowl Halftime gig with some new hardware in hand to reward his Police homage.

Tara: Lots of atmospheric tunes here. “Get Lucky” seems like the one that will feel no less groovy in ten years time. I wouldn’t put any money on it, but I could see the voters ignoring controversy and rewarding the biggest hit of the year.

macklemore-samelove-1Song of the Year

Should Win:

  • “Just Give Me a Reason”  – Jeff Bhasker, P!nk, and Nate Reuss – Kevin, Ben
  • “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 – Jonathan
  • “Same Love” – Ben Haggerty, Mary Lambert, Ryan Lewis, and Curtis Mayfield – Dan, Tara

Will Win:

  • “Just Give Me a Reason”  – Jeff Bhasker, P!nk, and Nate Reuss – Kevin, Ben, Dan
  • “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 – Jonathan, Tara

Kevin: P!nk is long overdue for a top tier award, and her co-write with previous winner Nate Reuss was, in my opinion, the best duet in a year chock full of ‘em.

Dan: The Macklemore & Ryan Lewis composition is somehow the most personal of the group even as it makes the biggest, broadest statement. And the climactic third verse still gives me chills.

Jonathan: I don’t care that Kacey Musgraves is a fan of hers: Perry’s nomination is indefensible, with four adults credited on a song that rhymes “zero” with “hero” and that allows pop music’s least-capable vocalist to scream a series of self-help cliches. The broad, even-in-the-flyover-states popularity of “Same Love,” though, gives the voters a safe opportunity to make a political statement and to recognize one of the year’s breakthrough acts.

Tara: It’s a toss-up between “Royals” and “Same Love” for me in terms of substance and purposeful songwriting, but I can’t ignore the chills I also get listening to the latter. I agree with Jonathan that this is a win-win way for the voters to make a statement.

Kacey+Musgraves+KACEY++PNGBest New Artist

Should Win:

  • James Blake
  • Kendrick Lamar – Jonathan
  • Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – Dan
  • Kacey Musgraves – Kevin, Ben, Tara
  • Ed Sheeran

Will Win:

  • James Blake
  • Kendrick Lamar 
  • Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – Dan, Kevin, Tara
  • Kacey Musgraves – Jonathan, Ben
  • Ed Sheeran

Kevin: Gotta root for the home team.  I think Macklemore & Lewis  will win, though.

Dan: For once, this category is hot across the board; you could make a great argument for any of these folks. Personally, I find Macklemore & Ryan Lewis to be the most exciting.

Ben:  I don’t always gravitate toward the country-affiliated New Artist nominee, but then again it’s rare for me to be so invested in a country newcomer’s artistry as I am with Musgraves. To see her win would make my heart happy.

Jonathan: Lamar is making the most compelling music of this lot, but this category’s history dictates that it’s Musgraves’ award to lose. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis pose a real threat, but being the only woman nominated plays in Musgraves’ favor.

Tara: It’s hard to tell if Musgraves’ profile outside of the country sphere is big enough to nab her this one, but I’d be happy if it did. I hope she keeps the face in check if it doesn’t, though.

REdBest Country Album

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean, Night Train
  • Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom
  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different ParkDan, Kevin, Ben, Jonathan, Sam, Tara
  • Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story
  • Taylor Swift, Red

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean, Night Train
  • Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom
  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park
  • Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story – Sam
  • Taylor Swift, Red – Kevin, Ben, Jonathan, Tara

Kevin:  Don’t see how Taylor doesn’t win, though Musgraves made the best album by a decent margin, regardless of how country any of ‘em are.

Dan: Here’s the most logical place to reward Musgraves, though I guess Red’s nomination in the general Album of the Year field makes it the frontrunner in this category. And that’s fine; whatever. I’ve been hoping for Swift’s albums to be grouped under “Pop” at the Grammys since Fearless. It ain’t gonna happen.

Ben:  Should Win – easy choice. Will Win – also an easy choice.

Sam: Just to be contrary, I think Shelton’s built up enough recognition with his “The Voice” gig that he has name recognition from voters who know next to nothing about country music. The fact that it was a terrible, terrible album doesn’t really matter.

Jonathan: No, Red shouldn’t be nominated in the Country field, so I wouldn’t vote for it on principle, even though its best tracks are far and away the strongest material in this line-up. NARAS has no qualms about rewarding pop crossover albums here, so it would be a huge upset were Swift to lose. When we were all prepping our ballots for our year-end countdowns, I had Musgraves’ album at #38. It’s good and I certainly understand why it has as many fans as it does, but I’m just not as bullish on it as others seem to be. Still, it would be my personal choice from this paltry line-up, since Aldean’s, McGraw’s, and Shelton’s albums ranged from pedestrian to downright unlistenable.

Tara: Seems like an easy Swift win, but I get where Sam’s head is at re: Shelton. There’s no question Musgraves made the best music, though, and what a shame she’s not surrounded by her peers who made even better music.

Miranda-Lambert-Mamas-Broken-Heart-2013Best Country Solo Performance

Should Win:

  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
  • Hunter Hayes, “I Want Crazy”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Dan, Kevin, Ben, Jonathan, Sam, Tara
  • Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel”
  • Blake Shelton, “Mine Would Be You”

Will Win:

  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
  • Hunter Hayes, “I Want Crazy”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Dan, Kevin, Ben, Jonathan, Sam, Tara
  • Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel”
  • Blake Shelton, “Mine Would Be You”

Kevin:  Lambert is the only female and the only previous winner.  I’d be shocked if she lost.

Ben:  To me, Lambert’s performance alone claims the distinction of making an already-great song even better.

Sam: This could be one of those rare occasions where the best nominee actually wins a Grammy. I think Hunter Hayes is a long shot, as most Grammy voters are not teenaged girls.

Jonathan: What Kevin said. Also, he’s a talented instrumentalist, but the Grammy voters’ fascination with Hunter Hayes is baffling.

Tara: Lambert’s is the most distinct and impactful performance here, but I’ll throw in my defense of Hayes’ “I Want Crazy,” a song and vocal that’s as breathlessly exuberant as Keith Urban’s best work.

5448-thumbBest Country Duo/Group Performance

Should Win:

  • The Civil Wars, “From This Valley”
  • Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill, “Don’t Rush”
  • Little Big Town, “Your Side of the Bed” – Jonathan
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, “You Can’t Make Old Friends” – Kevin, Ben, Tara

Will Win:

  • 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” - Kevin, Ben, Tara
  • Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, “You Can’t Make Old Friends” – Jonathan, Sam

Kevin: The high octane collaboration of McGraw/Swift/Urban has been unstoppable thus far.  Kudos to NARAS for noticing Rogers & Parton’s beautiful work, their best together since “Islands in the Stream.”

Ben: “You Can’t Make Old Friends” is enough to give many a longtime country music lover warm fuzzies, but the commercial clout of “Highway Don’t Care” may be too much to beat.

Sam: If you’re a Grammy voter and have to decide on a zillion categories, do you take the time to sit and listen to each nominee, or do you skim over the names and pick the ones you’re most familiar with? Kenny and Dolly for the win.

Jonathan: One of the strongest sets of nominees anywhere on the Grammy ballot this year. Little Big Town would get my vote so that they have a win for something besides “Pontoon” to their credit, but I think NARAS’ older voters will be swayed by the effortless charm of the Rogers and Parton duet.

Tara: I don’t love any of these except for the Rogers and Parton collaboration, as much as I wanted to embrace “Don’t Rush” (Kelly Clarkson! Vince Gill!). I think the middle-of-the-road McGraw / Swift / Urban song will win out, but here’s to hoping the voters act on warm fuzzies.

Merry_go_'roundBest Country Song

Should Win:

  • “Begin Again” – Taylor Swift
  • “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, and Jimmy Yeary
  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves – Kevin, Jonathan, Sam, Tara
  • “Merry Go ‘Round” – Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves, and Josh Osborne - Ben
  • “Mine Would Be You” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Deric Ruttan

Will Win:

  • “Begin Again” – Taylor Swift – Jonathan, Sam
  • “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, and Jimmy Yeary
  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves – Kevin, Tara
  • “Merry Go ‘Round” – Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves, and Josh Osborne - Ben
  • “Mine Would Be You” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Deric Ruttan

Kevin:  Gotta root for the Brandy Clark co-write, which is conveniently the best composition anyway.  Still, I think  voters will use this category to acknowledge Musgraves for writing her own hit instead of Miranda’s.

Ben:  I seem to be in the minority here, but I actually consider “Merry Go ‘Round” to be the finer of the two Musgraves co-writes – which is not to say that I don’t adore “Mama’s Broken Heart” or that I wouldn’t be thrilled to see Brandy Clark also gain a mantle decoration. This would seem a comfortable place for voters to acknowledge Musgraves – as well as a likely consolation prize should she lose Best New Artist – and like Kevin, I expect it will be for the hit she performed as well as wrote.

Sam: I’d just like to point out that this is an incredibly strong group of nominees and shows there is some substance to country music once you weed out all the tailgate songs.

Jonathan: Things could play out here in a similar fashion to the CMAs, with vote-splitting among the multiple nominations for Musgraves, McAnally, Alexander, and Harrington. That worked to the latter pair’s advantage at the CMAs, where “I Drive Your Truck” pulled off a surprise win, but Shelton’s powerballad could siphon votes from Brice’s hit this time. As much as I love the idea of Brandy Clark as a Grammy winner, I think the various vote-splits will allow one of Swift’s best-written songs to win.

Tara: As strong as Lambert’s spitfire performance is, I’d argue that the bones of “Mama’s Broken Heart” are even stronger. I’ve never been able to connect with “Merry Go Round” the way others have, but agree this is likely where the voters will single Musgraves out.

Build+Me+Up+From+Bones+Sarah+JaroszBest American Roots Song

Should Win:

  • “Build Me Up From Bones” – Sarah Jarosz – Jonathan
  • “Invisible” – Steve Earle
  • “Keep Your Dirty Lights On” – Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott – Kevin
  • “Love Has Come From You” – Edie Brickell and Steve Martin
  • “Shrimp Po-Boy, Dressed” – Allen Touissant

Will Win:

  • “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- Kevin, Jonathan
  • “Shrimp Po-Boy, Dressed” – Allen Touissant

Kevin:  Can voters resist Steve Martin? If they do, I hope it’s to acknowledge again the unique talents of Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott.  They are so good together.

Jonathan: Jarosz draws favorable comparisons to Alison Krauss, and, if ever there were a surefire way to appeal to Grammy voters, that would be it. She’d get my vote for the exceptional title track from her third album, though, like Kevin, I’m a big fan of O’Brien’s and Scott’s work together. Martin’s charm and name recognition are likely to give his duet with erstwhile New Bohemian Brickell the edge here.

harris-crowell-old-yellow-moonBest Americana Album

Should Win:

  • Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Old Yellow MoonKevin, Jonathan, Sam
  • 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

Will Win:

  • Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Old Yellow Moon – Kevin, Ben
  • Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Love Has Come For You - Jonathan
  • Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, Buddy and Jim
  • Mavis Staples, One True Vine
  • Allen Touissant, Songbook - Sam

Kevin:  Martin & Brickell might be the most logical choice, but in a category stacked with veterans, Harris & Crowell must be tempting to voters who are long time fans of both.

Sam: The fact that Jason Isbell wasn’t nominated here shows that Americana music has a long way to go before Grammy voters stop using it at the place where all veteran singer/songwriters end up. As for this year, Allen Touissant is older and has past Grammy love, so my money is on him.

Jonathan: The strongest, most vital year for Americana music in a decade is rewarded with a staid slate of nominees. Old Yellow Moon is the obvious standout and could very well win, but I think Martin’s well-received album with Brickell has the edge based on Martin’s celebrity.

0011661914124Best Bluegrass Album

Should Win:

  • The Boxcars, It’s Just a Road
  • Dailey & Vincent, Brothers of the HighwayJonathan
  • Della Mae, This World Oft Can Be
  • James King, Three Chords and the Truth
  • Del McCoury Band, The Streets of Baltimore

Will Win:

  • 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 - Kevin, Jonathan, Ben

Kevin: Haven’t heard these albums enough to have a personal favorite, but I think the Del McCoury Band’s name recognition will power it to a win.

Jonathan: Both the Del McCoury Band and Dailey & Vincent are nominated for some of their very best work, and either would be a richly deserving winner. Della Mae have a fairly vocal fanbase, but it isn’t clear if that fanbase overlaps with the Grammy voter bloc enough to unseat one of the two bigger-name acts.

GuyClarkMFPOYCoverSenorMcGuireBest Folk Album

Should Win:

  • Guy Clark, My Favorite Picture of YouKevin, Ben
  • The Greencards, Sweetheart of the Sun
  • Sarah Jarosz, Build Me Up From BonesJonathan
  • The Milk Carton Kids, The Ash & Clay
  • Various Artists, They all Played for Us: Arhoolie Records 50th Anniversary Celebration

Will Win:

  • Guy Clark, My Favorite Picture of You – Kevin, Ben, Jonathan
  • 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

Kevin: Sentimental favorite who also put out a great album? How can they deny Guy Clark?

Jonathan: I’m tempted to pick the Arhoolie Records without having heard it, simply because it just seems like something the idiosyncratic Grammys would go for. Clark is a safer bet for his beautifully observed album, while the ascendant Jarosz would get my vote for her career-best work.

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Country Universe’s Best Albums of 2013, Part Two: #20-#1

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.

Charlie Worsham Rubberband

#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”

Patty Griffin Silver Bell

#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”

Son Volt Honky Tonk

#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”

The Steeldrivers Hammer Down

#17
Hammer Down
The SteelDrivers

Individual rankings:  #12 – Ben; #15 – Tara, Sam; #20 – Jonathan

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”

Guy Clark My Favorite Picture of You

#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”

Holly Williams The Highway

#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”

 Pistol Annies Annie Up

#14
Annie Up
Pistol Annies

Individual rankings:  #9 – Tara, Sam; #15 – Ben; #19 – Kevin

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”

 Sturgill Simpson High Top Mountain

#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”

Patty Griffin American Kid

#12
American Kid
Patty Griffin

Individual rankings:  #10 – Jonathan; #12 – Kevin; #13 – Leeann; #18 – Tara; #20 – Ben

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”

Music Review Alan Jackson

#11
The Bluegrass Album

Alan Jackson

Individual rankings:  #7 – Kevin, Dan; #9 – Ben; #11 – Tara; #20 – Leeann

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

#10
In Time
The Mavericks

Individual rankings:  #1 – Sam; #10 – Tara, Ben; #18 – Kevin, Leeann

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”

Billie Joe + Norah Foreverly

#9
Foreverly
Billie Joe + Norah

Individual rankings: #4 – Kevin, #5 – Leeann, #6 – Dan; #13 – Tara; #14 – Jonathan

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”

Vince Gill and Paul Franklin Bakersfield

#8
Bakersfield
Vince Gill and Paul Franklin

Individual rankings:  #4 – Leeann; #5 – Ben, Jonathan; #6 – Tara; #16 – Kevin

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”

Emmylou Harris Rodney Crowell Old Yellow Moon

#7
Old Yellow Moon
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell

Individual rankings:  #2 – Leeann; #6 – Kevin, Ben; #14 – Sam; #15 – Jonathan; #17 – Tara

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”

kelly-willis-bruce-robison-cheaters-game

#6
Cheater’s Game
Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison

Individual rankings:  #5 – Dan; #9 – Leeann, Jonathan; #10 – Sam; #14 – Kevin, Tara; #17 – Ben

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

Recommended Tracks:  “Cheater’s Game”, “Waterfall”, “Dreamin'”

Jason Isbell Southeastern

#5
Southeastern
Jason Isbell

Individual rankings:  #2 – Kevin, Jonathan; #3 – Sam; #5 – Tara; #8 – Dan

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 Same Trailer Different Park

#4
Same Trailer Different Park
Kacey Musgraves

Individual rankings:  #3 – Dan; #4 – Ben; #6 – Sam; #8 – Leeann, Tara; #10 -Kevin

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”

Ashley Monroe Like a Rose

#3
Like a Rose
Ashley Monroe

Individual rankings:  #3 – Jonathan; #4 – Tara; #6 – Leeann; #8 – Ben; #9 – Kevin, Dan; #13 – Sam

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”

LeAnn Rimes Spitfire

#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””

Brandy Clark 12 Stories

#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”

Country Universe’s Best of 2013:

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