Posts Tagged ‘Emmylou Harris’

Album Review: Kathy Mattea, <i>Calling Me Home</i>

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

Kathy Mattea
Calling Me Home

 On her exquisite new album Calling Me Home, Kathy Mattea shows herself to be an artist who fully understands music as a medium of art and self-expression.  Following down a path similar to that of her stellar Grammy-nominated 2008 effort Coal, but expanding upon it by dealing with a wider range of topics, Calling Me Home finds Mattea turning to her own roots for inspiration, and producing what just might be the finest album of her illustrious career.

Produced by Gary Paczosa and Mattea herself, Calling Me Home is a confident, ambitious album that displays broadness in thematic scope, and eclecticism in musical influences, yet does so without sacrificing cohesion.  The album is perhaps most instantly appreciable as a work of astounding sonic beauty.  Mattea’s distinctive alto has rarely sounded better than it does when poured into a collection of simply beautiful Appalachian songs that she renders with poise, grace, and palpable personal connection.  Her voice is framed by the sounds of pure, gorgeous mountain instruments, performed by an ace team of veteran pickers that includes Bill Cooley on guitar, Bryan Sutton on mandolin, and Stuart Duncan on fiddle, among others.

Several songs encapsulate the warmth and comfort of home, as well as the homesickness brought on by one’s being separated from it.  The former is manifested in a warm and inviting waltz-like take on Hazel Dickens’ “West Virginia, My Home, with the latter being explored on the beautiful mandolin-driven album opener “A Far Cry.”  Mattea also addresses the coal mining industry that is central to the West Virginia economy.  In musing on man’s unending lust for coal, she takes on the voice of coal itself in the brilliant Larry Cordle/ Jeneé Fleenor

composition, “Hello, My Name Is Coal.”  She ventures into bleaker territory with Jean Ritchie’s “Black Waters,” (which features contributions from two of country music’s finest harmony vocalists, Patty Loveless and Emmylou Harris) a song which conveys the frustration of a narrator who sees his beloved farmland overrun by mining pollution.  Another Jean Ritchie song, the tragic “West Virginia Mine Disaster” deals with the heartbreak of a woman whose husband is killed in a coal mine, with Mattea delivering a desperate, heartrending performance.

A foremost thematic thread running through the album is that of respect for the natural world, and of the ongoing conflict between preservation of nature and man’s desire for growth and expansion.  “The Maple’s Lament” is worth hearing even just for the piercing, moaning fiddle that opens the track, and winds its way throughout, but Mattea’s take on Laurie Lewis’s aching tale of a maple tree that loses its life to a woodsman’s axe is more than enough to keep one interested.  In a similar vein, “The Wood Thrush’s Song” takes on the voice of the woodland bird whose song is no longer heard in the Appalachian woods.  Mattea’s vocal renderings show that she deeply she identifies with the characters she inhabits in these songs, whether giving voice to the widow of a deceased coal miner, or to something as simple as a personified wood thrush or maple tree.

The theme of human activities’ effect on nature comes to a head on Alice Gerrard’s “Now Is the Cool of the Day.”  In this haunting, unadorned a cappella performance, (one of two a cappella tracks on the album, the title track being the other) Mattea recounts an exchange between God and man that serves as a reminder of humankind’s responsibility to tend earth’s natural resources rather than damage them.  A message of hope is echoed by Si Kahn’s Gaelic ballad “Gone, Gonna Rise Again,” which deals with the restorative power of nature in the face of having been marred by human carelessness.

The value of this album is manifold.  Calling Me Home acquaints us on a personal level with the woman behind the microphone, giving insight into her background, and the things that are important and dear to her.  It enlightens, and challenges the listener to become a better, more caring person – not through a preachy or condescending tone, but through thought-provoking song material that that appeals to the listener’s heart, as well as to one’s own sense of home.

In short, the album does everything that music in its finest and purest form is meant to do.  The resulting product is not only the best country album of 2012, but a new peak for a woman who has already made some of the most compelling music of her generation.  Without a doubt, Mattea’s Calling Me Home is a must-have.

100 Greatest Men: #36. Ricky Skaggs

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

A brilliant bluegrass musician that became the unlikeliest of superstars, Ricky Skaggs moved seamlessly into mainstream country music and popularized bluegrass among a wide and willing audience.

Many musicians can claim mastery of their instruments at an early age, but few can compete with Skaggs, who taught himself to play the mandolin at age five and was performing on stage the same year.   As early as seven, he made a television appearance on Flatt & Scruggs, and he was a featured player in his family’s band throughout his childhood.  As a teenager, he met up with Keith Whitley and joined Ralph Stanley’s supporting band, the Clinch Mountain Boys.

After a few more stints in other bands, he recorded a solo album for an indie label, then formed his own group, Boone Creek.  This caught the attention of Emmylou Harris, who invited him to join her Hot Band several times.  He finally accepted and replaced outgoing member Rodney Crowell.    While influencing Harris’ sound, he also continued to release albums with Boone Creek and on his own.  Finally, his Sugar Hill setSweet Temptation caught the attention of Epic Records, and they signed him to their label.

Without any concessions to the Urban Cowboy sound of the time, Skaggs was a surprisingly huge success, and throughout the eighties he dominated the charts.   In 1982, he was the first artist to win both the Horizon Award and Male Vocalist of the Year at the CMA’s.  His bluegrass sets received huge critical acclaim while selling gold and platinum.  He recorded old classics mixed in with new material, with his musicianship front and center.  He even innovated on the video front, releasing the eye-popping “Country Boy” music clip, still widely regarded as one of the best country music videos of all time.

Once the Epic hits slowed down in the nineties, Skaggs returned to the bluegrass scene.  Amazingly, his work became more prolific than ever, winning him multiple Grammy awards as he collaborated with everyone from the Whites to Bruce Hornsby.   He drew heavily on his southern Gospel roots, and became a mainstay at festivals around the world.   The award-winning albums have continued ever since, now being released on his own Skaggs Family record label.

Today, he is the symbol of the very bluegrass traditions that he has always honored and preserved, and despite artists like Alison Krauss and Nickel Creek making waves in recent years, he remains the bluegrass star who has had the most mainstream success in country music.

Essential Singles:

  • Crying My Heart Out Over You, 1982
  • Heartbroke, 1982
  • Highway 40 Blues, 1983
  • Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown, 1983
  • Honey (Open That Door), 1984
  • Uncle Pen, 1984
  • Country Boy, 1985

Essential Albums:

  • Waitin’ for the Sun to Shine, 1981
  • Highways & Heartaches, 1982
  • Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown, 1983
  • Country Boy, 1984
  • Live in London, 1985
  • Ancient Tones (with Kentucky Thunder), 1999
  • Salt of the Earth (with the Whites), 2007

Next: #35. Gene Autry

Previous: #37. The Louvin Brothers

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

100 Greatest Men: #37. The Louvin Brothers

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

They would both go on to successful solo careers, but it was the music that Ira and Charlie Louvin made together that earned them a place in the annals of history.

Born in to Appalachian poverty, the Louvin Brothers began their public singing career by performing gospel standards at church.  Their distinctive harmonies and instrumental skills soon earned them a spot on AM radio in Chattanooga.  After Charlie did a brief tour with the Army, the duo moved to Knoxville, where their sound reached a wider audience.

By the late forties, the labels came calling. as did a publishing deal.  The Louvins released a few moderately successful singles before Charlie was sent back overseas, but when he returned, the brothers began incorporating country into their repertoire, a move largely influenced by their appearances on the Opry.   Throughout the fifties and early sixties, they released many of the most significant country compositions of all-time, including standards like the #1 hit “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby” and the top ten  “Cash on the Barrelhead.”

They never abandoned their gospel roots, as reflected in a series of classic albums with a spiritual focus.   One of their essential works was the LP Satan is Real, which became notorious for its vivid album artwork along with its music.   The increasing popularity of rock and roll slowed down their success, which sadly led to an alcohol addiction for Ira, who was encouraged to drop his signature mandolin from their sound.   His deterioration was the primary reason the duo disbanded in 1963.

Both brothers pursued solo careers, with Charlie forging out on his own and Ira performing with his new wife, Anne Young.  Tragically, Ira and Anne were killed in an automobile accident in 1965, preventing a reconciliation of the brothers.   Charlie proudly carried on the legacy of the Louvin Brothers, recording and performing right up until his death in 2011.

As years have gone by, the songs and recordings of the Louvin Brothers have become increasingly influential, shaping the sounds of the Byrds, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, and others.  In 2002, a tribute album by contemporary country, bluegrass, and pop artists was a huge success, winning the Grammy for Best Country Album.   Their sound lives on in the work of every duo built around harmony, from the Everly Brothers to the Judds, their songs have been covered by artists as diverse as James Taylor and Dolly Parton, and their themed albums with powerful artwork are regarded as essential classics by both musicians and graphic designers.

Essential Singles:

  • When I Stop Dreaming, 1955
  • I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby, 1956
  • Hoping That You’re Hoping, 1956
  • You’re Running Wild/Cash on the Barrelhead, 1956
  • My Baby’s Gone, 1958
  • The River of Jordan, 1959
  • How’s the World Treating You, 1961

Essential Albums:

  • The Louvin Brothers, 1956
  • Tragic Songs of Life, 1956
  • Ira and Charlie, 1958
  • Satan is Real, 1959
  • My Baby’s Gone, 1960
  • Sing and Play Their Current Hits, 1964

Next: #36. Ricky Skaggs

Previous: #38. Vince Gill

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

iPod Check: Most Played Song by Twenty Country Artists

Sunday, August 12th, 2012

Since bringing back Recommend a Track proved so popular, I’m resurrecting another CU oldie but goodie: the iPod check.

I’ve only recently discovered the Most Played feature on iTunes, since it never had any relevance until iPods were large enough in memory to sync all of my music.   So going back to early 2011, I have a lengthy list of the songs I’ve played the most.

So today’s iP0d check:  List your most-played song from twenty different country artists.

You can access this info by going to your own Most Played list and adjusting the number of songs on it – I use 500 for mine – or you can just go to Music and sort by number of plays.  Or you can just pick twenty artists at random and list your most played song for each.  We’re easy here.  (This would also work in Spotify, from what I hear.)

Here’s my top twenty:

  1. Pam Tillis – Deep Down (89 plays)
  2. Keith Urban – I Told You So (81)
  3. Dixie Chicks – Long Time Gone (71)
  4. Taylor Swift – Mean (68)
  5. Trisha Yearwood – Where Are You Now (63)
  6. Patty Loveless – You Can Feel Bad (59)
  7. Emmylou Harris – Easy From Now On (55)
  8. Carrie Underwood – Undo It (50)
  9. Lori McKenna – Lorraine (50)
  10. Dwight Yoakam – Ain’t That Lonely Yet (46)
  11. Sara Evans – Rocking Horse (45)
  12. Sawyer Brown – Cafe on the Corner (45)
  13. Reba McEntire – The Fear of Being Alone (44)
  14. Shania Twain – Up! (43)
  15. Faith

    Hill – Stealing Kisses (41)

  16. Alan Jackson – So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore (40)
  17. Crystal Gayle – Why Have Your Left the One You Left Me For (39)
  18. George Strait – Meanwhile (39)
  19. Lee Ann Womack – I May Hate Myself in the Morning (39)
  20. Aaron Tippin – Whole Lotta Love on the Line (38)

I’m surprised that some of my most played artists overall, like Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, and Tim McGraw, don’t have that one big song that I play excessively.  Also, at least half of the songs above aren’t what I would call my favorite song by the given artist.  How about you?

 

100 Greatest Men: #47. Rodney Crowell

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

First as a songwriter, then as a new country superstar, and currently as an alternative country icon, Rodney Crowell has made an indelible mark on country music for nearly four decades.

Born and raised in Houston, Texas, he was already a bandleader in high school, heading up a teenage outfit called the Arbitrators.   He was only 22 when he moved to Nashville, and by 1975, he’d been discovered by Jerry Reed, who heard him doing an acoustic set.   Reed not only recorded one of his songs, but also signed him to his publishing company.

Crowell was soon a member of Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, and she was the first to record some of his compositions that went on to be big hits for other artists, including: “I Ain’t Living Long Like This”, a #1 hit for Waylon Jennings; “‘Til I Gain Control Again”, a #1 hit for Crystal Gayle;  “Leavin’ Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”, a #1 hit for the Oak Ridge Boys; and “Ashes By Now”, a top five hit for Lee Ann Womack.

His remarkable songwriting talent led to a record deal with Warner Bros.  While a trio of albums for the label were critically acclaimed, they failed to earn him success on the radio or at retail.   But as would be the case for his entire career, other artists mined those records for hits.  Most notably, “Shame on the Moon” became a #2 pop hit for Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band.

Crowell took a break from his solo career to focus on his songwriting and production responsibilities for then-wife Rosanne Cash.   This would be yet another successful avenue for Crowell, as his work with Cash produced several #1 singles and three gold albums.  The relationship also helped set his solo career on fire.  After signing with Cash’s label Columbia, his second set for the project was previewed with a duet with Cash, “It’s Such a Small World.”

It became the first of five consecutive #1 singles from Diamonds & Dirt, a gold-selling disc that briefly made Crowell an A-list country star, as five additional Cash singles that he had produced also hit #1 over the same time period.   He received a Grammy award for Best Country Song for “After All This Time.”   Two foll0w-up albums for Columbia also produced a handful of hits, with his final mainstream success being the pop crossover hit, “What Kind of Love.”

In the nineties, Crowell recorded two albums for MCA which were well-reviewed, but most notable for the second set including “Please Remember Me.”  It stalled as a single when Crowell released it, but  later that decade, Tim McGraw’s cover topped the charts for five weeks and earned Crowell a slew of award nominations.

The new century brought a reinvention on Crowell’s part, as he repositioned himself as an Americana artist with remarkable success.   A trio of albums earned rave reviews, as did his collaboration with old friends like Vince Gill on The Notorious Cherry Bombs, which earned a handful of Grammy nominations and included Crowell’s “Making Memories of Us.”  Once again, a current artist discovered it, and Keith Urban took it to #1 for several weeks.

Inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003, Crowell continues to build on his legacy as a singer, songwriter, and producer.  Most recently, Crowell produced Chely Wright’s confessional Lifted off the Ground and co-wrote an album with friend Mary Karr which features their songs recorded by several artists, including Crowell himself. 

Essential Singles:

  • I Ain’t Living Long Like This (Waylon Jennings), 1980
  • ‘Til I Gain Control Again (Crystal Gayle), 1982
  • Shame on the Moon (Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band), 1982
  • It’s Such a Small World (with Rosanne Cash), 1988
  • I Couldn’t Leave You if I Tried, 1988
  • After All This Time, 1989
  • What Kind of Love, 1992
  • Please Remember Me (Tim McGraw), 1999
  • Making Memories of Us (Keith Urban), 2005

Essential Albums:

  • Ain’t Living Long Like This, 1978
  • Diamonds & Dirt, 1988
  • The Houston Kid, 2001
  • Fate’s Right Hand, 2002
  • The Outsider, 2005

Next: #46. Dwight Yoakam

Previous: #48. Kris Kristofferson

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

Donna Summer: The Country Connection

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

Donna Summer, disco legend, passed away today at the age of 63.

Much like my earlier post on Whitney Houston's untimely passing, writing about Summer's death isn't completely foreign to our topic of country music.

Whereas Dolly Parton wrote a #1 pop hit by Whitney Houston, Donna Summer wrote a #1 country hit for Dolly Parton.

“Starting Over Again” is anything but a disco number.  It's a tender tale of a middle-aged couple divorcing after their children are grown:

Reba McEntire also covered the song in 1995, taking it back to the top twenty:

Summer co-wrote many of her classic hits, including “Love to Love You Baby”, “Dim All the Lights”, “I Feel Love”, “Bad Girls”, and “She Works Hard for the Money.” But my favorite of her compositions is “On the Radio”, which I actually heard first by Emmylou Harris as a straight-up heartbreaking ballad:

Needless to say, I was taken aback by the disco beat when I finally heard Summer's original version.

I haven't been writing much lately, but I couldn't let the passing of this timeless talent go by without comment.  Like Houston before her, she was a great singer who went too soon, and country music's legacy was just a little bit richer for her passing through.

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Country Music Hall of Fame Welcomes Garth Brooks, Connie Smith, and Hargus “Pig” Robbins

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

Garth Brooks, Connie Smith, and keyboardist Hargus “Pig” Robbins will join the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012.

Brooks is the top-selling country music artist in history.  At fifty, he is one of the youngest living inductees ever.

Smith is the fifth female artist to be inducted since 2008, when Emmylou Harris ended a nine year drought for female inductees.

Since playing on the George Jones classic “White Lightning” in 1957, Robbins has recorded with countless legends of country and rock music, including Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Alan Jackson, and Bob Dylan.

What’s your take on the 2012 inductees?  More importantly, who deserves to join them in 2013?

We’ll run a list of our picks for the next round. Share your suggestions in the comments!

Grammy Awards 2012: Staff Picks & Predictions

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

The 54th annual GrammyAdele Awards air this Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern. Look for appearances by Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley and Lady Antebellum as well as country-ish performances by Jason Aldean, Glen Campbell (with the Band Perry and Blake Shelton), Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. We’ve picked and predicted the awards below – share your thoughts, and be sure to drop by on Sunday night for our live blog!

Album of the Year

Should Win

  • Adele, 21 -Dan, Kevin, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • Foo Fighters, Wasting Light
  • Lady Gaga, Born this Way
  • Bruno Mars, Doo-Wops & Hooligans
  • Rihanna, Loud

Will Win

  • Adele, 21 - Dan, Kevin, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • Foo Fighters, Wasting Light
  • Lady Gaga, Born this Way
  • Bruno Mars, Doo-Wops & Hooligans
  • Rihanna, Loud

Ben: Adele made some of the best and most memorable music of the year, and met with across-the-board critical and commercial success, so it’s hardly a stretch to say that she should and will emerge victorious here.

Tara: I don’t often agree with Bob Lefsetz, but his case for why 21 has resonated so well is spot on: “music trumps everything.” How true, and how refreshing that an album that embraced the hell out of this theme made such a commercial splash.

Sam: Lady Gaga is the only one of the nominees who can rival her for publicity in 2011, but Adele’s record sales should put her over the top. Oh, and it was a great record — not that that means anything where Grammy voters are concerned.

Dan: It helps that this is an especially lazy pool of nominees. 21 is certainly a strong album and a commercial landmark, but I do wish something like Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy were here to help hold up the bar.

Kevin:  Adele made the best album by a wide margin.

Record of the Year

Should Win

  • Adele, “Rolling in the Deep” -  Dan, Kevin, Ben, Tara, Sam 
  • Bon Iver, “Holocene”
  • Bruno Mars, “Grenade”
  • Mumford & Sons, “The Cave”
  • Katy Perry, “Firework”

Will Win

  • Adele, “Rolling in the Deep” -  Dan, Kevin, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • Bon Iver, “Holocene”
  • Bruno Mars, “Grenade”
  • Mumford & Sons, “The Cave”
  • Katy Perry, “Firework”

Ben: The dramatic build-up nature, the simmering intensity, the all-guns-blazing chorus…“Rolling In the Deep” is all but untouchable.

Tara: As rousing a Top 40 hit as we’ve heard in years. I think we all know Adele will sweep.

Sam: I’m a Mumford & Sons fan, but it’s hard to top “Rolling in the Deep.” Anyone who votes for a Katy Perry song in this category should lose their Grammy voting rights permanently.

Dan: Long after it became overplayed, it was still more refreshing to me than everything else on the radio.

Kevin:  Adele cut through the hype by being the best singer and the best songwriter.  Amazing, isn’t it?

Song of the Year

Should Win
  • “All of the Lights” – Jeff Bhasker, Malik Jones, Warren Trotter & Kanye West - Dan
  • “The Cave” – Ted Dwane, Ben Lovett, Marcus Mumford & Country Winston
  • “Grenade” – Brody Brown, Claude Kelly, Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine, Bruno Mars & Andrew Wyatt
  • “Holocene” – Justin Vernon
  • “Rolling in the Deep” – Adele Adkins & Paul Epworth – Kevin, Ben, Tara

Will Win

  • “All of the Lights” – Jeff Bhasker, Malik Jones, Warren Trotter & Kanye West
  • “The Cave” – Ted Dwane, Ben Lovett, Marcus Mumford & Country Winston
  • “Grenade” – Brody Brown, Claude Kelly, Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine, Bruno Mars & Andrew Wyatt
  • “Holocene” – Justin Vernon
  • “Rolling in the Deep” – Adele Adkins & Paul Epworth - Dan, Kevin, Ben, Tara

Tara: “Rolling in the Deep” shines more as a record than as a composition, but it’s still memorable enough to nab this award, and I think it will.

Dan: Here’s where I’d love to see some variation. “All of the Lights” is a poetic, layered micro-drama. Plus, from a songwriting standpoint, I’ve never fully gotten over how “Rolling in the Deep” cribs its chorus from Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.”

Kevin:  The British slang that the song is built around doesn’t stop “Rolling” from being the most universal of the five compositions. 

Best New Artist

Should Win

  • The Band Perry - Sam
  • Bon Iver
  • J. Cole – Tara
  • Nicki Minaj – Dan, Kevin
  • Skrillex

Will Win

  • The Band Perry – Sam
  • Bon Iver – Dan, Kevin, Tara
  • J. Cole
  • Nicki Minaj
  • Skrillex

Tara: Bon Iver fits the Grammy mold the best. Personally, I’m not married to any of these acts, but I guess J. Cole piques my interest the most right now. This is totally one of those picks I’m going to regret in six months…

Sam: I think this one could be an upset win for the country world. “If I Die Young” was such an unexpected crossover hit, and I think it had more resonance than most other singles from the eligibility period. Plus the Band Perry is cuter than a basket full of puppies, which can only help them.

Dan: I think Bon Iver is the most fully realized act, and predict the band’s Song and Record nods will tip Grammy voters to vote for them like Adele’s did a few years ago. But Minaj’s potential excites me the most, and I had “Super Bass” on loop last year.

Kevin:  Minaj is the most refreshing of the five, though Bon Iver’s the most Grammy-friendly.

Best Country Solo Performance 

Should Win

  • Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem”
  • Martina McBride, “I’m Gonna Love You Through It”
  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean” - Dan, Kevin, Jonathan, Ben, Tara, Leeann, Sam
  • Carrie Underwood, “Mama’s Song”

Will Win

  • Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem” – Sam
  • Martina McBride, “I’m Gonna Love You Through It”
  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean” - Dan, Kevin, Jonathan, Ben, Tara, Leeann
  • Carrie Underwood, “Mama’s Song”

Ben: Swift outclasses the competition by miles.

Jonathan: A depressing line-up here, really. Swift’s single and performance are far and away the strongest of the five nominees, but she didn’t land the general field nominations that many people were expecting her to receive, so I do wonder if her support runs as deep this year as it did during the Fearless juggernaut. If she loses this one, I think it will be to the red-hot-but-I-don’t-get-it-at-all Aldean.

Tara: Embarrassing line-up. “Mean” is the only one that even comes close to Grammy worthy. I think Swift still has the voters on her side, but I could also see Aldean edging her out.

Sam: “Honey Bee?” “Dirt Road Anthem?” Really, Grammy voters? I guess we should be lucky they managed to put one good song in the category, even if it was probably an accident. However, I think voters are going to take a year off on the Swift love and give it to Aldean, because it’s the least country-sounding song in the category.

Dan: I could see Shelton’s familiarity prompting a win here, but suspect Grammy voters are still in Swift’s corner.

Kevin:  They should just make the genre categories line up perfectly with the big three. This is really a race for Country Record of the Year anyway.  Swift’s entry is the best.

Leeann: All of the songs on this are vanilla except for the Swift song, both in lyrics and execution. This is the inarguable standout song.

Best Country Duo / Group Performance

Should Win

  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
  • Kenny Chesney with Grace Potter, “You and Tequila” – Kevin, Leeann
  • The Civil Wars, “Barton Hollow” -  Dan, Jonathan, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • Thompson Square, “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not”

Will Win

  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay” -  Dan, Jonathan, Ben, Tara, Leeann, Sam
  • Kenny Chesney with Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”
  • The Civil Wars, “Barton Hollow” – Kevin
  • Thompson Square, “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not”

Ben: It’s a super tough call for me to choose between The Civil Wars and Chesney and Potter.  As much as I adore “You and Tequila,” I’m finally settling on The Civil Wars as my pick.  However, I expect that Aldean and Clarkson will likely triumph over both.

Jonathan: Had the Civil Wars scored the Best New Artist nomination that they seemed primed for, I would be more bullish on their chances here. They’re still the only of the four nominees I’d even consider voting for, but Clarkson is the only proven Grammy commodity in this lot, and this is probably the least credibility-straining place to recognize Aldean.

Tara: Confession: I don’t really see the sparkle that others see in “You and Tequila.” The swampy “Barton Hollow” has my heart, but I think Aldean & Clarkson will have the Grammy voters’ hearts. And I’m always OK with a little K. Clarkson love.

Sam: “Barton Hollow” kicks the ass of every other song on the list, including the excellent Chesney/Potter collaboration, and if Grammy voters actually listened to the songs they vote for, it would probably win. However, the Aldean/Clarkson screamfest has the benefit of Kelly Clarkson’s name recognition and Aldean’s current popularity.

Dan: The Civil Wars wail like mad dogs on their track. But Aldean and Clarkson are both having a moment right now.

Kevin:  The Civil Wars seem like Grammy catnip.

Leeann: My vote goes for the Chesney/Potter collaboration or The Civil Wars song, but I won’t be surprised if it goes to the powerhouse duet of Aldean and Clarkson based on crossover appeal. I hope, however, that  it turns out that I’m not giving the Grammy voters enough credit.

Best Country Song

Should Win

  • “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” – Jim Collins & David Lee Murphy
  • “God Gave Me You” – Dave Barnes
  • “Just Fishin’” – Casey Beathard, Monty Criswell & Ed Hill
  • “Mean” – Taylor Swift -  Dan, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • “Threaten Me With Heaven” – Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Will Owsley & Dillon O’Brian -  Kevin, Jonathan, Leeann
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter

Will Win

  • “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” – Jim Collins & David Lee Murphy
  • “God Gave Me You” – Dave Barnes
  • “Just Fishin’” – Casey Beathard, Monty Criswell & Ed Hill
  • “Mean” – Taylor Swift -  Dan, Kevin, Jonathan, Ben, Tara, Leeann
  • “Threaten Me With Heaven” – Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Will Owsley & Dillon O’Brian – Sam
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter

Ben: Gill’s “Threaten Me with Heaven” is mature and beautifully written, but ultimately, my heart still belongs to “Mean.”

Jonathan: Gill has a real shot at this because it’s the Grammys so Gill always has a real shot at anything he’s nominated for. He’d be a worthy winner here, too, as would “You and Tequila” or the more likely winner, “Mean.”

Tara: I wrestle with this one, but I think the freshness of “Mean” gives it an edge over Gill’s track for me. Gill could easily take this given he’s Grammy royalty, but I’ll predict the voters will stick with Swift.

Sam: It’s Vince Gill in a Grammy category. That’s why.

Dan: I’d be happy with any of those last three. Honestly, I even half-like “Just Fishin’” and “God Gave Me You” as songs.

Kevin:  Can’t believe that Gill’s composition got a nod.  I like Swift’s record the most, but as a song, “Threaten Me With Heaven” is jaw-droppingly good.

Leeann: I’d love to see Vince win another grammy, but I won’t be surprised  or too disappointed if Swift takes this one.

Best Country Album

Should Win

  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party
  • Eric Church, Chief  - Jonathan, Tara, Leeann
  • Lady Antebellum, Own the Night
  • Blake Shelton, Red River Blue
  • George Strait, Here For a Good Time - Kevin, Ben
  • Taylor Swift, Speak Now – Sam

Will Win

  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party – Dan
  • Eric Church, Chief
  • Lady Antebellum, Own the Night - Tara
  • Blake Shelton, Red River Blue
  • George Strait, Here For a Good Time
  • Taylor Swift, Speak Now Kevin, Jonathan, Ben, Leeann, Sam

Ben: Church, Strait, and Swift have the three best albums, and of those three, Strait’s Here for a Good Time is the most fully realized, but I would expect that Swift’s crossover appeal and high sales numbers will lead voters to gravitate toward Speak Now.

Jonathan: The nomination for Lady Antebellum’s godawful album represents Grammy voting at its laziest. I don’t care how many people bought Own the Night: It’s terrible and, at some point, the over-rewarding of Lady A for their aggressively middlebrow, banal music has to stop. Church’s album would get my vote over Strait’s by just a hair and, even though I would’ve nominated it for Best Pop Album instead, Speak Now is Swift’s strongest set to date, so I won’t complain too loudly when she wins here.

Tara: Chief packs a killer, audacious punch…but I have this sinking feeling that Lady A will pull a repeat in this category. Look – I was (and probably still am) Lady A’s biggest advocate at Country Universe, but I can’t get behind the overblown success of their degenerating music. How will they ever be motivated to live up to the massive potential shown on Lady Antebellum if we keep rewarding them like this

Sam: Quality-wise, Speak Now edges out Chief, though I think Chief deserves some recognition for its ambition. Speak Now was a commercial and an artistic triumph, though the only concern is that it was released so long ago that its impact may have faded from the voters’ memories. That might open the door for Lady Antebellum to win, which would be a shame. While I actually kind of liked Own the Night, there are three albums better than it in the category.

Kevin: Strait just keeps getting better lately.  I think he’d win if it wasn’t for category crossover votes for Swift.

Leeann: I wish I cared about this category more this year than I actually do. It’s likely that either Strait or Swift will win the award, but I think Church’s album is the most interesting.

Best Americana Album

Should Win

  • Linda Chorney, Emotional Jukebox
  • Ry Cooder, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down
  • Emmylou Harris, Hard Bargain - Jonathan
  • Levon Helm, Ramble at the Ryman
  • Lucinda Williams, Blessed

Will Win

  • Linda Chorney, Emotional Jukebox
  • Ry Cooder, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down
  • Emmylou Harris, Hard Bargain
  • Levon Helm, Ramble at the Ryman – Dan
  • Lucinda Williams, Blessed  - Jonathan, Ben, Sam

Jonathan: Of the four veterans nominated, only Harris’ album is anywhere close to her best work, but that rarely matters much. The vitriol directed at Chorney and her exploiting of NARAS’s new social networking initiatives to garner her nomination has reflected very, very poorly on a whole lot of Americana fans and has perpetuated an ugly “us-versus-them” attitude, but there’s no dressing up how poor Chorney’s album actually is, either. But she’s also the only one of the five nominees that anyone has been talking about during the entirety of the voting period… I give the edge to Williams on sales stats alone, but there’s really no frontrunner here.

Sam: Should win: Hayes Carll, KMAG YOYO and other American Stories (yeah, I know it wasn’t nominated). I actually kind of hope that Linda Chorney wins. For one thing, the outcry would be phenomenal. For another, it might shed some light on just how the voting is done, and is there a better way to do it. Do the voters know what Americana music is? Did they listen to any of the albums? I have nothing against any of the nominees, but Hayes Carll released one of the best albums of the year and had no chance in competing against legends like Emmylou, Ry Cooder and Levon Helm. Of the four legitimate nominees, Williams has gone the longest between Grammy wins, so maybe it’s her turn.

Dan: Levon has won for his last two albums. This one is a live set, so Lucinda could definitely unseat him, but still.

Best Bluegrass Album

Should Win

  • Alison Krauss and Union Station, Paper Airplane
  • Jim Lauderdale, Reason and Rhyme
  • Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, Rare Bird Alert – Sam
  • The Del McCoury Band, Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe
  • Ralph Stanley, A Mother’s Prayer
  • Chris Thile and Michael Staves, Sleep With One Eye Open – Jonathan

Will Win

  • Alison Krauss and Union Station, Paper Airplane - Jonathan, Dan, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • Jim Lauderdale, Reason and Rhyme
  • Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, Rare Bird Alert
  • The Del McCoury Band, Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe
  • Ralph Stanley, A Mother’s Prayer
  • Chris Thile and Michael Staves, Sleep With One Eye Open

Ben: I have no rationale for who should win, but I think we all know who will.

Jonathan: I can’t think of anything more foolhardy than betting against Alison Krauss at the Grammys.

Tara: What Ben said.

Sam: Honestly, I thought Krauss’ Paper Airplane was kind of tepid, while Rare Bird Alert was charming and energetic. Still, Krauss is the Jimmy Sturr of the Grammy bluegrass categories (all the polka fans should get that reference), so unless the voters decide to give Martin a lifetime achievement award of sorts, she’s got this one in the bag.

Dan: Steve Martin’s got a chance, but…

Best Folk Album

Should Win

  • The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow – Leeann
  • Steve Earle, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive - Jonathan, Sam
  • Fleet Foxes, Hopelessness Blues
  • Eddie Vedder, Ukelele Songs
  • Gillian Welch, The Harrow & The Harvest

Will Win

  • The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow - Jonathan, Ben
  • Steve Earle, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive - Dan
  • Fleet Foxes, Hopelessness Blues
  • Eddie Vedder, Ukelele Songs - Leeann, Sam
  • Gillian Welch, The Harrow & The Harvest

Ben: If my prediction of an Aldean-Clarkson victory for Duo/Group Performance comes true, I would expect that this is where voters will recognize The Civil Wars.

Jonathan: If NARAS were really committed to the idea of reducing the number of categories, they’d merge the Americana and Folk Album categories with Best Country Album and, considering how fast and loose they’re already playing with genre tags, they probably should do just that and let the chips fall where they may. Welch’s album is the only one of the five that really scans as “folk” music in any traditional sense, so who wins here will depend on whether or not voters are looking for something more traditional or contemporary. I’m guessing it’s the latter case, to the benefit of the Civil Wars.

Sam: Steve Earle released his best album in years with I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. The love songs were tender, the topical songs were sharp and insightful, and there weren’t any love songs about Condoleezza Rice. Eddie Vedder, on the other hand, is in Pearl Jam, so clearly he’s the odds-on favorite. Actually, Ukelele Songs got some pretty good reviews, and if Vedder’s vocals didn’t remind me so much of Bob Dylan’s current voice crossed with an injured goat, I might be more inclined to like it.

Dan: I can imagine a Fleet Foxes or Civil Wars win, but in the end, I’m still guessing Earle, the proven Grammy favorite.

Leeann: It’s sad that I care about this category far more than the Country Album category this year. I love The Civil Wars album the most, but the Welch, Vedder and Earl albums are great too. I’ll be happy to see any of them win, but I have a strange feeling that Vedder will take it.

Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part One: #40-#31

Monday, January 2nd, 2012

For nine decades and counting, country music has been defined by the single, with only the format and definition changing over time.

Today, a single could be any one of the following: a CD sent to radio for airplay; a digital download released in advance of an album; a music video released to online websites and dwindling television outlets; and in a lovely throwback, a seven inch vinyl single sold in the indie record stores that have managed to outlast the chain stores that once threatened their existence.

Seven Country Universe editors and contributors each submitted their twenty favorite singles of the year.  59 different singles made the cut, and over the next four days, we’ll share with you the top forty.   You can listen to a sample from each song by scrolling down to the bottom of the post.

Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part One: #40-#31

#40
The Road
Emmylou Harris

Individual Rankings: #18 – Kevin; #18 – Ben; #20 – Jonathan

A musical expression of gratitude from the incomparable Emmylou Harris to her late musical mentor Gram Parsons. Through her lyric and vocal, Harris conveys a wide array of emotions – obviously sadness, along with nostalgia for times past, wonderment and uncertainty, as well as determination to persevere in spite of heartache, while also highlighting the invaluable role of music in coping with a devastating loss.

Above all else, however, “The Road” is a song of thankfulness for having had such a friend in the first place, even if for only a brief time. – Ben Foster

#39
Shut Up Train
Little Big Town

Individual Rankings: Kevin – #13

Far from the first country song to build a train metaphor around a heartache, this one is distinguished by a strong vocal performance and the creative approach of having the protagonist talk directly to the train. – Kevin John Coyne

#38
Let it Rain
David Nail featuring Sarah Buxton

Individual Rankings: Sam – #15; Dan – #19

Nail’s moody streak continues, this time with a ringing cheater’s lament. He’s so appalled at himself that he calls on the heavens to rain down judgment. But it’s Buxton who strikes the gavel in the end, as her voice shreds with the pain of a woman whose world will never be the same. – Dan Milliken

#37
Ours
Taylor Swift

Individual Rankings: #12 – Sam

The pop-country version of Taylor Swift is a bona fide superstar. However, when she strips down the production and shows off her quieter, folksy side like she does on “Ours,” she really shines. Based on the quality of her past singles “Ours” and “Mine,” she’ll have a real winner if she ever gets around to writing “Yours.” – Sam Gazdziak

#36
Shanghai Cigarettes
Caitlin Rose

Individual Rankings: #12 – Jonathan

It’s often hard to separate Caitlin Rose’s music from her Manic Pixie Dream Girl persona– that she sings like Zooey Deschanel with a far better sense of pitch doesn’t help, either– but “Shanghai Cigarettes” makes it clear that she learned a lot about songcraft from her mother, frequent Taylor Swift collaborator Liz Rose. – Jonathan Keefe

#35
You
Chris Young

Individual Rankings: #11 – Tara

Two parts neo-traditional charm, one part that voice and a dash of breezy sensuality. Goes down smoother than anything since James Otto rode the airwaves. More, please. – Tara Seetharam

#34
Fixin’ to Die
G. Love

Individual Rankings: #14 – Jonathan; #19 – Dan

One of the elements that distinguishes contemporary country from traditional genre forms is a heavy use of percussion, and G. Love ups the ante in that regard on “Fixin’ to Die.” By marrying a straightforward acoustic blues arrangement to a rhythm section lifted almost entirely from J-Kwon’s “Tipsy,” G. Love effectively thumbs his nose at the idea of a rural vs urban divide. – Jonathan Keefe

#33
Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise
The Avett Brothers

Individual Rankings: #10 – Sam

The Avetts’ I and Love and You was one of the best albums of 2010, and this song was one of its highlights. For a band that can deliver some raucus punk-bluegrass tunes, they can also put together hauntingly pretty songs too.- Sam Gazdziak

#32
Barefoot Blue Jean Night
Jake Owen

Individual Rankings: #7 – Dan

Contrived, utopian visions of Southern partying are practically an entire country sub-genre now. “Barefoot” checks all the formulaic boxes, but for once the formula’s impossible details (“the girls are always hot and the beer is ice cold!”) are matched to an equally dreamlike, shimmering production, exposing what a fantasy the whole thing is. You can’t buy the premise, but you grant the underlying escapism.- Dan Milliken

#31
Down by the Water
The Decemberists

Individual Rankings: #11 – Sam; #17 – Leeann

As has been noted, “Down by the Water” seems influenced by an R.E.M. sound. However, the brightly placed harmonica and accordion, along with aggressive background vocals by Gillian Welch, make the melodic composition a memorable song on its own merits. – Leeann Ward

Next:  Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part Two: #30-#21

Twelve Songs of Christmas: Day Eight

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

Song #8: Joy to the World

Sam’s Pick: Patty Loveless

Loveless’  Bluegrass and White Snow is one of the best Christmas albums around and a staple of my holiday soundtrack. This song boasts background vocals from Jon Randall and Emmylou Harris, which proves that if you want to make a great song even better, get Emmylou to sing on it.

Leeann’s Pick: Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors

I am not familiar with Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors outside of the Christmas album on which this song can be found, but I can say that the album is a mix of fun and warmth and this song is just one example of that.

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