I’ve heard it said so many times in the past week: the death of Michael Jackson is my generation’s equivalent of the Death of Elvis Presley. (I can only assume that makes Kurt Cobain our Janis Joplin?)
He was a controversial figure, to be sure, and much like Elvis, a tragic figure even before his tragic death. Being a music fan first, I lost interest in Jackson a long time ago, simply because he’s made so little music in the past two decades – a mere three studio albums in more than twenty years.
But there’s no doubt that he’s an icon, the embodiment of the MTV age and the breakdown of barriers between pop, R&B and dance music. Who does pop music have left that’s in the same league? Only Madonna, but since she’s still very much at the top of her game and is anything but a tragic figure, don’t expect the mourning for her to begin any time soon.
But pop music isn’t the only genre running low on icons. What country acts remain that could garner significant coverage upon their death? Johnny Cash’s death made the cover of Time magazine, an honor usually reserved for former Beatles members. CNN broadcast live from Tammy Wynette’s funeral back in 1998.
In contrast, Waylon Jennings and Porter Wagoner, two legends and Hall of Fame members, made barely a ripple in the national news media. It’s easy to imagine the same fate for George Jones and Merle Haggard, two country music icons that have never been nearly as popular in the media beyond country music.
Who are the icons in country music that could command the same attention as Wynette and Cash, or perhaps even Jackson, when their road comes to an end?
Few artists command as much critical acclaim as Dwight Yoakam, yet he was also a stunningly successful commercial act from the start. Nine of his releases have been certified gold or better, and his biggest set to date – This Time – has sold more than three million copies.
His catalog is deep with classic cuts. Here are ten of the best, a solid introduction to one of the genre's greatest talents.
And while it's not represented on the list, I highly recommend his stellar Under the Covers, an excellent covers album that is best heard in its entirety.
“Guitars, Cadillacs” from the 1986 album Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.
It's tempting to kick off with “Honky Tonk Man”, Yoakam's effective cover of Johnny Horton's classic that was also his breakthrough hit. But what's missing from that track is Yoakam's signature heartache and pain. In Yoakam's best songs, he's not seeking out the night life because he enjoys it. It's to distract him from the loneliness and rejection that his lover has inflicted upon him.
“Streets of Bakersfield” (featuring Buck Owens) from the 1988 album Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room
Yoakam was instrumental in making the younger generations aware of the importance of Buck Owens, clearly Yoakam's strongest country influence. When he chose to revive an old Owens tune, he invited the man himself to help him out. The end result was a #1 hit that was a comeback for Owens and a signature smash for both of them.
“It Only Hurts When I Cry” from the 1990 album If There Was a Way
Yoakam's albums got considerably more ambitious in the nineties, but it's the beautiful simplicity of this hit, co-penned by Roger Miller, that's made it so timeless.
“Suspicious Minds” from the 1992 album Honeymoon in Vegas
He'd already had a hit with Elvis Presley's “Little Sister”, which he covered faithfully on his second album, Hillbilly Deluxe. But it was his rocking cover of “Suspicious Minds” that, in my mind, well surpassed Presley's original version.
“Ain't That Lonely Yet” from the 1993 album This Time
Co-writer James House had planned on keeping this one for himself, but when Yoakam heard it, he insisted that he get the chance to release it. It was a good move for both men, as the song became a radio smash and the performance earned Yoakam a Grammy.
“A Thousand Miles From Nowhere” from the 1993 album This Time
There's something hypnotic about this particular hit, which was immortalized with a split-screen video that has since become a classic.
“Nothing” from the 1995 album Gone
Gone is Yoakam's most fascinating album of self-penned material, with creative percussion arrangements and unexpected horn sections popping up here and there. There was never anything on country radio quite like it, nor has there been anything since.
“Things Change” from the 1998 album A Long Way Home
One of Yoakam's catchiest hits is also one of his most venomous, as he rejects the lover that has come crawling back to him after sending him packing earlier in the song.
“Thinking About Leaving” from the 1999 album Last Chance For a Thousand Years
Yoakam added new lyrics and changed the arrangement of this Rodney Crowell song, which had originally appeared on Crowell's Jewel of the South. He turned it into the confessional of a man torn between a life on the road and making a home with the woman who finally has him wanting to settle down.
“The Back of Your Hand” from the 2003 album Population: Me
Yoakam knew he had to cut this song when he heard the line, “There's some things that I just know, like you take two sugars with a splash of cream.” I've always been most fond of the way he frames the choice facing the woman who wants to leave: “Pick a number from one to two.”
Starter Kits are Country Universe’s way of introducing country music fans to an artist that they might not be fully aware of. Our first Starter Kit features Conway Twitty, the legendary Hall of Famer with forty number one singles to his credit.
After having major success on the pop charts in the fifties, Twitty crossed over to country, where he was a regular presence in the top ten from the late sixties until the early nineties. No country music fan should be without some Conway Twitty in their collection. Here are ten tracks to start off with.
“It’s Only Make Believe” from the 1958 album Conway Twitty Sings
Twitty’s clearly influenced by Elvis Presley as a vocalist on this #1 pop hit. He’d later develop a country style but never fully lose the soul sound found on his first hit.
“Hello Darlin’” from the 1970 album Hello Darlin’
Still his signature song, Twitty became a superstar with this plaintive plea to his former lover.
“How Much More Can She Stand” from the 1971 album How Much More Can She Stand
Twitty almost succeeds at making a cheating man sound sympathetic, as he ponders the weakness inside him and the impact it has on the woman that he loves but still betrays.
While the Grammys have honored country music from the very first ceremony in 1959, they did not begin honoring by gender until 1965, when the country categories were expanded along with the other genre categories. This year, the 45th trophy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance will be awarded.
In a continuation of our Grammy Flashback series, here is a rundown of the Best Country Vocal Performance, Male category. It was first awarded in 1965, and included singles competing with albums until the Best Country Album category was added in 1995. When an album is nominated, it is in italics, and a single track is in quotation marks.
As usual, we start with a look at this year’s nominees and work our way back. Be sure to vote in My Kind of Country’sBest Male Country Vocal Performance poll and let your preference for this year’s race be known!
Trace Adkins, “You’re Gonna Miss This”
Jamey Johnson, “In Color”
James Otto, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”
Brad Paisley, “Letter to Me”
George Strait, “Troubadour”
As with the album race, this year’s contenders for Best Male Country Vocal Performance are a combination of unrecognized veterans and promising newcomers. In fact, none of this year’s nominees have won in this category, and only one of them – Brad Paisley – has a Grammy at all.
First, the veterans. Paisley has numerous ACM and CMA victories to his credit, including two each for Male Vocalist. Although he’s been nominated for this award twice before, this is the first time he’s contended with a cut that can’t be dismissed as a novelty number. The touching self-penned “Letter to Me” is his best shot yet at taking this home.
Trace Adkins has been at this a bit longer than Paisley, but this is his first Grammy nomination. His crossover exposure from Celebrity Apprentice might help him out here, along with the fact that the song was considered strong enough by voters to earn a nomination of its own.
But the real veteran to watch out for is George Strait. After being nominated only twice for this category in the first 25 years of his career, voters have now given him three consecutive nominations. This is one of four nods he’s earned for the 2009 ceremony, and “Troubadour” is essentially the story of his epic career distilled into a radio-length song. It would be the perfect way to honor the man and his music in one fell swoop.
However, there’s a newcomer that might be a Grammy favorite already. We just haven’t found out yet. Not James Otto, of course, who is nominated for his charming romantic romp “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”, but rather, Jamey Johnson. The recent Nashville Scene critics’ poll further confirmed the depth of his support among tastemakers, and his nominations for Best Country Song and Best Country Album indicate that he’s very much on the academy’s radar. It helps that he has the most substantial track of the five, and it’s the obvious choice for traditionalists, who have little reason to split their votes in this category. If voters aren’t considering legacy when making their selections, he has a great shot at this.
Dierks Bentley, “Long Trip Alone”
Alan Jackson, “A Woman’s Love”
Tim McGraw, “If You’re Reading This”
George Strait, “Give it Away”
Keith Urban, “Stupid Boy”
The often offbeat Grammy voters have been surprisingly mainstream in this category for the past three years, a trend best exemplified by this lineup, which was the first in more than a decade to feature only top ten radio hits. Tim McGraw and Keith Urban were the only two who had won this before, and it was Urban who emerged victorious. “Stupid Boy” was a highlight of his fourth studio album, and this was the only major award that the impressive collection would win.
Dierks Bentley, “Every Mile a Memory”
Vince Gill, “The Reason Why”
George Strait, “The Seashores of Old Mexico”
Josh Turner, “Would You Go With Me”
Keith Urban, “Once in a Lifetime”
Vince Gill returned to win in this category for a ninth time with “The Reason Why.” Not only is he, by far, the most honored artist in this category, his wins here account for nine of the nineteen Grammys currently on his mantle.
George Jones, “Funny How Time Slips Away”
Toby Keith, “As Good As I Once Was”
Delbert McClinton, “Midnight Communion”
Willie Nelson, “Good Ol’ Boys”
Brad Paisley, “Alcohol”
Keith Urban, “You’ll Think of Me”
Urban’s biggest and probably best hit launched his second album to triple platinum and established him as a crossover artist. He gave a killer performance of the song on the show. Toby Keith was a first-time nominee here, and while he publicly groused that the Grammys put too little emphasis on commercial success in picking their nominations, he lost to the only track that was a bigger hit than his own.
Happy holidays, everybody! I’m back with my personal top ten albums of the year, a list that took a stupid-long time to put together but is very nice to have done. All I would say as a note is that I like all of these albums very much and don’t think the rankings should be scrutinized to death, because my tastes certainly change frequently enough.
Okay, you get it. Let’s do this. Va-VOOM!
Dailey and Vincent,Dailey and Vincent
I typically lean progressive in my bluegrass tastes, but there’s simply no arguing with this dynamic twosome, whose debut finds them ripping into a straight-ahead traditional style with such crazy-polished singing, playing and writing that they practically become the new standard. Excellent.
Kathy Mattea, Coal
Confession: I wasn’t quite sure how to take this one. Although I like Kathy Mattea’s voice and generally love concept albums, I had trouble getting into this set of mining-related songs as a whole, which may be because I personally have trouble digesting so many bare-bones story songs in one sitting, or may be because the album itself becomes a bit monotonous after a while. It’s kind of hard to say, and I finally decided that it’s just the sort of thing I personally have to be in the right mood for. Objectively speaking, though, I think what Mattea and producer Marty Stuart have achieved here is easily one of the most fully realized artistic expressions of 2008, and it’s pretty hard to gripe about on a song-by-song or sonic basis. So #9 feels about right for me.
Reckless Kelly, Bulletproof
Randy Rogers, Wade Bowen and Cody Canada take note: Reckless Kelly’s latest set showcases just how tersely effective the whole “country-nodding Texas rock” shtick can be when you pay the same attention to developing compelling lyrical ideas that you do to ‘tude (and I say that with love, because I enjoy work from all of the acts mentioned above). Bonus points for the year’s best album cover.
Through the wonders of digital technology, duets with the deceased are not only possible, but convincing collaborations can be constructed from the transcendent art they’ve left behind. To honor Elvis Presley, a new collection of Christmas song finds his inimitable voice paired with some of the finest singers in a variety of musical genres.
From Sony Music Entertainment:
Sony Music Entertainment is giving Elvis Presley fans the opportunity to sing a Christmas duet with The King of Rock ‘N’ Roll. The “Sing With The King” ecard makes it possible for fans to record their own version of Presley’s classic ‘Blue Christmas.’ The ecard uses the same unique technology that allowed country superstars like Martina McBride, Carrie Underwood, and Sara Evans to sing along with Presley on the “Elvis Presley Christmas Duets” CD.
At www.SingWithTheKing.com fans can watch the new Elvis Presley and Martina McBride ‘Blue Christmas’ video, record their own version ‘Blue Christmas’ with Elvis and then send it to friends and family along with a personal message in the form of a holiday e-card.
She was the rockabilly superstar that Music City had dreamed would come along, a pioneer who made the fusion of early rock and country commercially viable. She made timeless records while still in her early teens, and matured into a mainstream country singer later in her career. Today, she is a legend to both country and rock audiences, one of the few artists who can be found in both the Country Music and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Not bad for a poor Georgia girl who started singing professionally to help her widowed mother pay the bills. Brenda Lee was born Brenda Mae Tarpley, and she was singing from the time she could walk. As a toddler, she could hear a song twice on the radio and be able to sing it back, word for word. Even at age six, she was a prodigious talent, and was already appearing on local television shows in Atlanta. What was a cute hobby became a financial necessity in 1953, when her father was killed in a construction accident.
Brenda and her mother slipped into poverty, along with her three other siblings. She was able to make more money singing than anything her mother could do, so she would perform every weekend all around Georgia. Red Foley discovered Lee in early 1956, and asked her to appear on Ozark Jubilee. Her biggest musical influence was Hank Williams, so she performed “Jumbalaya.” The wild response the performance received led to guest spots on several other network shows, and the exposure earned her a deal with Decca Records.