This Keith Whitley classic was recorded as part of a tribute album to the late country star. It became a hit all over again, perhaps because Krauss performed it in a near-whisper. The quiet arrangement matches the sentiment beautifully. – Kevin Coyne
Lawrence dishes on his ex’s cheating ways to her new potential lover. How did she get that way? He reveals that he’s the one who taught her everything she knows from the cheater’s playbook. Moreover, he seems regretful of her corruption. – Leeann Ward
Cowboy Take Me Away Dixie Chicks
1999 | Peak: #1
In a modern world where life can so easily feel cold and mechanical, love remains earthy and exciting and mysterious. It’s a window into a different world, one where we’re not defined by the predictables of our routine – the same stresses, the same cars and buildings – but by our core nature as people, our place in the greater fabric of Earth and, perhaps, heaven. On the surface, “Cowboy Take Me Away” sounds like just a sugar-sweet love song – I’ve even heard it called “pre-feminist” – but there’s something else going on here: a plea for life to have meaning again. – Dan Milliken (more…)
Sometimes the choices that you make linger forever. Here, a woman in her thirties drives past a high school football game, and her mind wanders to the painful void left in her heart from the son she gave up for adoption. – Kevin Coyne
Faith Hill’s sophomore album is a surprisingly deep set, filled with candid insights into different womens’ lives. The title track represents that approach well, with Hill’s protagonist speaking to the differences in her approach to love and her partner’s. Seems simple, but then again, people spend thousands in couples counseling trying to find a way to voice feelings this directly. – Dan Milliken
She’d Give Anything Boy Howdy
1993 | Peak: #4
A not-so-subtle depiction of how elusive true love can be for some women – even those who desperately seek it – that resonates not despite of but because of its blatancy. There’s a beautiful honesty to the song’s precise articulation of the mixture of frustration and strength that builds up within these women. – Tara Seetharam
The Trouble With the Truth Patty Loveless
1997 | Peak: #15
The trouble with the truth is that is just so demanding. We think we want it, but it often requires some sort of action from us once we have it. Loveless struggles with this quandary: “The trouble with the truth is it always begs for more. That’s the trouble with the truth.” – Leeann Ward
Still Gonna Die Old Dogs
1999 | Peak: Did Not Chart
Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis, Bobby Bare, and Jerry Reed united for an amazing live album dominated by Shel Silverstein songs. For anyone who read his brilliant poetry books for children, “Still Gonna Die” is the golden years equivalent: clever, frightening, and darkly hilarious. KC
From the first strains of the song, we know this is going to be a dark one. While he hasn’t physically cheated yet, the thoughts of at least wishing to do so are spilling over, which begs the analogy of “It’s like trying to hide a fire in the dark.” – LW
She is Gone Willie Nelson
1996 | Peak: Did Not Chart
As in his classic recording of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”, Nelson’s sad remembrance of a lost love glows with unspoken warmth, as the beauty of his good memories shines through the outer layer of melancholy. – DM
Presenting the perfect Country & Western song! This is a great David Allan Coe cover with some alterations, including the exclusion of a stanza (which does water down the song a bit), changes to the spoken part, and additions of some special guests. – LW
Wine Into Water T. Graham Brown
1998 | Peak: #44
A kneeling drunkard’s plea for the modern age. A broken man struggling with his alcoholism asks Jesus to perform His first miracle in reverse. Brown’s rough and tumble voice is the best possible fit for this fine composition.- KC
High Powered Love Emmylou Harris
1993 | Peak: #63
The added punch to the production shows that Harris could do nineties country as well as anybody on the radio back then, which is quite the compliment, given who was getting airplay in 1993. A perfect lament for a lover who won’t settle for skin deep treasures, she wonders, “Is there anyone left with teeth just a little uneven? Who won’t spend more time with a mirror than he does with me?” – KC
You Won’t Ever Be Lonely Andy Griggs
1998 | Peak: #2
Griggs creates a touching ballad out of one of the sweetest, simplest promises that comes with making a commitment to someone – that no matter the storm outside, you’ll never have to face it alone. – TS
Instead of serving as a means to shut the other person out, the door that Tippin is suggesting is for the purpose of letting the other person in. “a door ain’t nothin’ but a way to get through a wall”, he sings. If they work together to create it, then they might be able to walk through it to meet each other halfway. – LW
Built on a poignantly written metaphor, “The River” gracefully weaves together elements of faith, inspiration and motivation. It’s a masterful single, from its poetic lyrics to its beautifully simplistic arrangement, but the heart and soul is Brooks’ gripping conviction – quiet yet fierce. On a personal note, this song contains one of my all-time favorite lyrics that I often revisit: “So don’t you sit upon the shoreline and say you’re satisfied/Choose to chance the rapids and dare to dance the tide.” – TS
McGraw’s character leaves behind a lifelong love interest and a little home town to explore the world. But instead of getting good closure, the poor guy starts seeing the girl he left in every place he visits, even long after she has married and had children. That these visions could feasibly represent both unresolved romantic feelings and the inescapable imprint of one’s roots is just country-delicious. – DM
You’re Beginning to Get to Me Clay Walker
1998 | Peak: #2
Walker’s falling head first for a girl, but he isn’t ready to take the plunge with the L-word just yet. In his catalogue of fabulous 90s hits, this understated “love” song gets overshadowed by some of the more distinct ones, but it’s nonetheless memorable. – TS
Travis Tritt is one of few country artists who is as known for his rocking side as he is for being a strong balladeer. “Help Me Hold on” is a plea to his lover to help him salvage what’s left of their relationship, which doesn’t seem to be much, since she’s already packing a suitcase. – LW
Let’s be real: to most core readers of this blog, it’s probably old news that Miranda Lambert is releasing this unusually good song to radio. And it’s probably old opinion for me to proclaim that she’s playing a more sophisticated game than just about any mainstream artist out there. You know: “she’s real, everyone else is a phony!” Is there some amount of truth in that? Sure. But you don’t need another country music Caulfield to tell you. You just have to listen to the song. The difference between this record and most of the others at radio can be felt within seconds.
So blah blah, it’s very good. Maybe great. The best on the album, which is itself quite good. She’s all that. Know what I find myself thinking? It shouldn’t be like this.
Meaning, it shouldn’t come as a pleasant shock when a major label sends out the best track on the album. Or when the track has that distinction because of its grace and intelligence, not because it happens to be more disposably catchy than the others surrounding it. We shouldn’t feel so tempted to put Miranda Lambert on a pedestal just because she’s one of the only acts who bothers (or, perhaps, gets away with) picking music with a few brain cells. We should feel better about noticing that “The House That Built Me” has a few hackneyed turns of phrase, that the second verse seems underdeveloped compared to the first.
I’d like to tell you about the beautiful craft, depth and delivery that make this single worthy of its almost-certain coronation as the best of the year. But all I can think is that that coronation shouldn’t be so almost-certain. Miranda Lambert is a great young artist; she deserves to compete with other great artists, ones who will elicit her admiration and secret envy and drive her to seek yet better songs, better ideas. It infuriates me that this single sticks out so plainly on the Billboard charts. It infuriates me that it’s such a fluke, that mediocrity is so dominant now that I have to focus all my country-music-fan energy on hoping this one really strong release will hit the Top Ten.
Because we used to have a genre full of this stuff, you guys. We used to have a bunch of of artists at once trying to find or write songs like this in between the standard fluff of the day. Hank, George, Emmylou, Dwight, Mary Chapin, whoever – even a lot of less consistent, less celebrated artists. They didn’t all sound the same, but there was a common thread: they tried to be great.
I don’t know all the political intricacies of country music’s current problem. I’m some guy on the internet blogging from an on-campus apartment. But I know that a lot of problems get fixed when individuals stop trying to please everyone and simply try to be great at what they do. Miranda Lambert has been trying to be great from Day One. And what a pleasure it is when her end result is worthy of the same grade as her effort:
Now, what do the rest of you have to say for yourselves?
Like many country fans who discovered the genre in the nineties, CMT and TNN were central to my experience of discovering music. When CMT shifted to non-music programming, GAC quickly became the channel of choice. But as that channel grew in popularity, it shifted its emphasis to only mainstream country music, losing the diversity that defined it in its early years.
When moving late last year, I switched cable companies. Initially, I thought the best country-related channel I’d gotten in the switch was CMT Pure, which plays only music. Unfortunately, older videos are limited to a 1/2 hour of programming called “Pure Vintage”, a pale comparison to the three-hour early morning extravaganza “CMT Classic” that once ran on CMT proper in the wee hours of the weekend.
By a fluke, I discovered RFD-TV, which bills itself as “Rural America’s Most Important Network.” I could care less about the horse and agriculture shows, but with country music, this channel has hit the jackpot.
Currently airing regularly: vintage episodes of The Porter Wagoner Show, Pop Goes the Country, and Crook & Chase. It’s like going back into the seventies and eighties with the benefit of DVR! To see Don Williams appear as a young artist just getting his start, all skin and bones and sideburns. To see Dolly Parton at the peak of her songwriting talent, expressing it through the confines of the “girl singer” slot on Wagoner’s classic show, outshining everything else by such a wide margin it’s a wonder they didn’t turn the whole show over to her. Or even just to see the legendarily slow-talking Ralph Emery interviewing stars in his youth, and learning that his slow pace wasn’t a product of aging – he’s always talked that way.
I’ve even seen a female artist I didn’t recognize. That’s right, the guy who wrote this didn’t know who this woman was:
That’s Susan Raye, by the way, doing her best to sing a song of seduction while buttoned up from neck to toe. I’d read about her, but there’s no way I would’ve heard this #53 hit “Saturday Night to Sunday Quiet” if not for RFD-TV. Much like I never would’ve asked for the Emmylou Harris box set for Christmas if I hadn’t seen the “High-Powered Love” video on CMT, a song that made it to #63 at radio.
Producing primarily pop-flavored country music has rarely been a ticket to immortality for even the biggest artists, particularly the female ones. Imports like Shania Twain and Olivia Newton-John are labeled impostors. Faith Hill’s canny song sense is overlooked while hubby Tim McGraw’s is widely praised. Brilliant Dolly Parton records like “Here You Come Again” and “9 to 5″ are cited as being beneath her greatness, rather than prime examples of it. Only Patsy Cline has been given a free pass, and who wouldn’t want to claim those pipes?
Where does this leave Crystal Gayle, younger sister of Loretta Lynn and owner of 32 top ten hits, 18 of which went #1? As the first female country artist to sell platinum, her impact was quite big back in the day. But aside from her signature classic “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”, her music has been largely forgotten. Perhaps this is because she peaked during an era that is often looked down upon as too crossover for its own good. Unlike Parton and Cline, there is virtually nothing for traditionalists to celebrate within Gayle’s catalog of hits. But much like Hill and Newton-John, the woman recorded some wonderful songs that deserve rediscovery. Here are a dozen of the best.
“I’ll Do It All Over Again” from the 1976 album Crystal
Gayle typically avoided purely victim stances in her lyrics. Here, she’s been left but is aware that her heart will mend and that she’ll love again.
“Ready For the Times to Get Better” from the 1976 album Crystal
Country singles recorded in a minor key are quite the rarity, but the arrangement undercuts the misery of the lyric, even as she’s clearly ready to move on to happier times. This just might be her finest moment.
“Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” from the 1977 album We Must Believe in Magic
This classic won her a Grammy and the first of two CMA Female Vocalist trophies. If the piano sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same player that powered Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors” to similar success on both the country and pop charts.
“Talking In Your Sleep” from the 1978 album When I Dream
Proving that her appeal wasn’t limited to one big hit, this hit launched what would become Gayle’s second consecutive platinum album.
“Why Have You Left the One You Left Me For” from the 1978 album When I Dream
Her first really big uptempo hit defied expectations and broke her out of the ballad mold. It didn’t hurt that it was ridiculously catchy.
“Half the Way” from the 1979 album Miss the Mississippi
Another hook-laden hit, powered by an infectious string section and quite a bit more wailing than she’s usually known for.
“Too Many Lovers” from the 1980 album These Days
What sounds like a quiet bar ballad in the first few seconds soon turns into an uptempo message of caution to women looking for love in all the wrong places.
“You Never Gave Up On Me” from the 1981 album Hollywood, Tennessee
There aren’t too many anniversary songs that essentially say, “Thanks for loving me even when I didn’t love you.” Romantic songs like to pretend that both partners are equally kind and loving, when that isn’t always the case. I like ones like this more.
“‘Til I Gain Control Again” from the 1982 album True Love
Crystal Gayle was hardly the predictable vehicle for this intricate Rodney Crowell composition that had been previously cut by Emmylou Harris. Even she didn’t think she could pull it off. Thankfully, producer Jimmy Bowen coaxed her into it, and the result was a #1 hit that was also among her most sophisticated performances.
“Baby, What About You” from the 1982 album True Love
Not much more to say about this one than it’s a slice of pop-country perfection.
“The Sound of Goodbye” from the 1983 album Cage the Songbird
One of Hugh Prestwood’s first great moments as a writer was this hit. Much like his material later pushed Randy Travis into a more ambitious production approach (“Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart”), the sonic landscape of this #1 hit pushed Gayle and country radio into far more interesting territory.
“Cry” from the 1986 album Straight to the Heart
Given that she’s in the grand tradition of those Nashville Sound ladies, it’s no surprise that Gayle not only covered Lynn Anderson’s #3 hit effectively, she even took it two slots higher up the chart.
During the nineties boom, there was a mad rush to get the catalog of older country artists available on CD. For older country albums, this wasn’t always the best approach. Many of these discs had only ten tracks, so even with a handful of bonus songs, the entire running time could still be under 40 minutes. Some labels took the smart approach of pairing two albums to one disc, but for the most part, it was landmark albums or lengthy compilation discs.
The digital age has finally made it both practical and affordable to get those old albums. Vintage sets are now available from legends like Merle Haggard and Glen Campbell, and even not quite legends like Jeannie C. Riley. But there are still some glaring omissions that need to become more readily available.
Topping my wish list is Evangeline by Emmylou Harris. Some tracks were included on her box sets, but the bulk of this album, the last one by Harris to gold, remains unavailable. Given that among those tracks is “I Don’t Have to Crawl” and “Oh Atlanta”, it’s really time to get a move on.
What albums would you like to be reissued, either as a CD or digital download?
Last year, I counted down my twenty-five favorite Christmas songs. This year, it’s time to do the same with my favorite country Christmas albums. Feel free to add your own favorites in the comment section.
SHeDaisy, Brand New Year
This is not a typical, conservative country Christmas album. SHeDaisy spices things up by not only including originals, but rearranges the classics to make an unpredictable, unique Christmas album that stands out from the pack.
Dolly Parton, Home for Christmas
This is an incredibly cheesy Christmas album. As only Dolly can do, however, it’s at least delightfully cheesy.
Charlie Daniels & Friends, Joy To the World: A Bluegrass Christmas
This album flew under the radar this year, but it’s a wonderful bluegrass album with a few famous friends. Daniels even steps aside to allow his guests to sing while only accompanying them. Jewel steps up with an impressively country vocal on “Blue Christmas” and Kathy Mattea offers a rollicking version of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.”
John Denver and the Muppets, Christmas Together
I grew up with this album. On the strength of nostalgia, I’d put it at the top of this list, but for the sake of being reasonable, I’ll settle for this ranking. Who doesn’t love the Muppets, anyway?
John Cowan, Comfort and Joy
John Cowan’s Comfort and Joy is a new release, but its acoustic production and Cowan’s clear voice is instantly appealing. He interprets some classics, but also includes some worthy originals and lesser-known songs. The sprightly “Christmas Everyday”, the thoughtful “Little Match Girl” and the gospel “Good News” provide welcome depth to this Christmas project.
Mindy Smith, My Holiday
Mindy Smith adeptly covers well-known standards on her Christmas album, but her original inclusions are what really stand out here, particularly “Follow the Shepherd Home” and “I Know the Reason.” With guest appearances from Alison Krauss, Thad Cockrell and Emmylou Harris (not to mention Smith’s own beautiful voice), My Holiday is one of the most outstanding mixes of originality and tradition on this list.
Loretta Lynn, Best of Christmas…Twentieth Century Masters
This is a collection of Loretta Lynn Christmas songs. It’s my favorite traditional country Christmas album.
Emmylou Harris, Light of the Stable
If you enjoy Harris’ bluegrass album, Roses in the Snow, and her Live At the Ryman, you’ll likely enjoy this acoustic-based Christmas album as well. It has a live, relaxed feel to it. While it doesn’t necessarily sound big-budget, it is still a well-crafted Christmas album.
The Tractors, Have Yourself A Tractors Christmas
The Tractors are infamous for their cringe-worthy novelty song, “Baby Likes To Rock It”, but they made an excellent Christmas album nonetheless. Their blend of swing and shuffle makes for a crisp album that I love to hear every year. I enjoy the entire album with the exception of their Christmas twist on “Baby Likes to Rock It.”
Lee Ann Womack, A Season for Romance
Lee Ann Womack is successful in conveying a romantic vibe on this album that suggests just that. With her easy southern drawl, Womack knows her way around a gorgeous Christmas melody. Her fun side should not be ignored, however, as her version of “the Man with the Bag” is easily the superior track on the album.
Travis Tritt, A Travis Tritt Christmas: Loving Time of the Year
Tritt rocks on songs like “Winter Wonderland”, adds a bluesy twist to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, waxes nostalgic on “Christmas in My Hometown” and reverently sings “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Nevertheless, he keeps Christmas in perspective as he philosophizes on the title track and, possibly naively, proclaims it to be the “most loving time of the year.”: “I wish I could bottle up this feeling/Pass out a little everyday/’Cause all the scars of pain have started healing/And troubles of this world just fade away…”
Dwight Yoakam, Come on Christmas
Dwight’s signature quirky vocal style does not disappoint on this Christmas album. He does some standards and a few originals. His bluesy version of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” just may be the only version of that song that I like. Among the originals, the dysfunctional “Santa Can’t Stay” and the album’s sensual title track are the highlights of the project.
Gene Autry, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Other Christmas Classics
Like Bing Crosby, Gene Autry’s name is simply synonymous with Christmas music.
John Prine, A John Prine Christmas
Prine’s rough, unpolished voice does not try to navigate beloved classics that conjure up feelings of warmth and frivolity. Instead, he does what works best for him, which means writing songs that reveal insightful observations of real life. As a result, A John Prine Christmas is darker than a typical Christmas album.
Alan Jackson, Let It Be Christmas
While Alan Jackson’s first Honky Tonk Christmas album is great, this one was recorded to appease his mother who requested a more traditional-sounding record. This one is especially good when hosting guests with mixed music tastes. Backed by a big band and orchestra, Jackson’s smooth voice navigates these traditional tunes with ease. Jackson’s original composition, the title track, is superb enough to stand with the revered classics.
Martina McBride, White Christmas
Martina McBride made a safe Christmas album with all familiar songs, but she still managed to deliver an album that’s engaging and among the best of its kind. And as one might expect from McBride, she knocks “O Holy Night” out of the park.
Toby Keith, A Classic Christmas
Toby Keith shows his generosity at Christmas time by making two Christmas albums (one of religious classics and the other of secular classics) and packaging them together for one low price. As a skillful interpreter, he treats these classics with both reference and fun as appropriate, with “Little Drummer Boy” receiving the coolest laid back production that I’ve ever heard on it.
Lorrie Morgan, Merry Christmas from London
With the London Orchestra, Morgan is in fine voice and keeps up with the power accompaniment quite well. This is a beautiful, straightforward album that includes many classics and a sweeping version of “My Favorite Things.”
Randy Travis, An Old Time Christmas
This Christmas album is exactly what one would expect from Randy Travis. If you like Randy Travis music and you like Christmas music, this one doesn’t disappoint. Highlights include his version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, Meet Me Under The mistletoe” and “Old Time Christmas.”
Kathy Mattea, Joy for Christmas Day
Kathy’s warm, soothing voice is meant for Christmas songs. She sings some standards along with some awesome originals. The stand out tracks are the gorgeous “Straw Against The Chill” and the infectious “Unto Us A Child Is Born.”
Garth Brooks, Beyond the Season
Garth’s first and best Christmas album sounds a lot like Garth Brooks music of the early nineties. Even the classics get the Brooks treatment, including a soulful version of “Go Tell It On A Mountain.” The highlights include but aren’t limited to “The Friendly Beasts” (in which he enlists the help of some of his songwriting friends), “Unto You This Night” and Buck Owens’ “Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy.”
George Strait, A Classic Christmas
Strait has as many Christmas albums as he has decades in the country music business. This album is far superior to the other two, however. While all of the songs are classics, he has recorded them with rootsy productions to match his warm vocals. Highlights include “Jingle Bells”, “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and “Oh Christmas Tree.”
Clint Black, Christmas With You
This album consists of all original songs composed by Clint Black himself. Most of it contains Christmas through the eyes of children, including “Slow As Christmas”, “Milk and Cookies” and “The Coolest Pair.” It’s fresh, fun and joyous, just as Christmas should be.
Patty Loveless, Bluegrass And White Snow: A Mountain Christmas
As a follow up to Mountain Soul, Patty Loveless delivers a soulful bluegrass Christmas album that radiates Christmas warmth while injecting moments of festive frivolity as well. Appearances by Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Rebecca Lynn Howard and Jon Randall are not necessary to strengthen this already masterful Christmas album, but they certainly help the celebration in a special way. (For more on this album, read a review by guest contributor Stephen Fales.)
Pam Tillis, Just in Time for Christmas
Most of the time, I want to hear warmth on a Christmas album. As is the case with many of my favorites, I like to be able to imagine listening to Christmas music by a cozy fire (though I don’t have a fireplace) and a nice mug of hot chocolate. With Tillis’ album, my imagination does not have to stretch very far, because it commands such images with its tasteful, jazzy production and Tillis’ naturally pleasant voice. This is clearly a country Christmas album, but it also manages to blend country elements with other traditional components that result in a perfect hybrid of torch and twang.
The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 3: #160-#141
#160 “Last Call”
Lee Ann Womack
Womack’s second-best Aughts song about late-night temptations is still better than a lot of people’s first-best songs about anything. Even in avoiding her drunken ex’s advances, she sounds positively heartbroken, suggesting she’d gladly make the other decision if she didn’t know better. – Dan Milliken
#159 “She’s Not Just a Pretty Face”
Her motivation for her music has always been escapism, but I love the personal touch she slips into this one. Her late mother is the one who she’s referring to when she sings “at night, she pumps gasoline.” – Kevin Coyne
As we come to the end of our list, the top ten selections are a lot like the ninety before them, with perhaps a bit more of a roots leaning overall. If you didn’t see your favorite on the list, or just want to discover more great music that you might have missed, be sure to check out the list at The 9513, if you somehow haven’t done so already. Even better, start a blog and write your own list. It feels like a lot of barriers fell within country music this decade, and I think one of the best walls to come down was the one between music journalism and the listening audience. I hope in the next decade, a lot more readers become writers, so we can all keep reveling in the music we love and helping others discover it.
Sappy introduction aside, here’s our top ten of the decade:
Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and few albums have inspired more imitation than Patty Loveless’ Mountain Soul. Bluegrass music full of roots influences, Mountain Soul, with its traditional sound, has become a surrogate definition of authenticity for mainstream artists returning to their musical beginnings. Standout songs include “Cheap Whiskey,” a classically dark drinking song; the energetic “The Boys are Back in Town,” with its WWII imagery; and “Soul of Constant Sorrow,” based on the traditional work popularized by the Stanley Brothers. – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “The Boys are Back in Town”, “Cheap Whiskey”, “Soul of Constant Sorrow”, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”
Vince Gill, These Days
An inordinate amount of praise has already been heaped upon Vince Gill’s prolific, 2006 landmark 4-disc box set of all original material. Moreover, all of the praise is warranted. Not only is all of the material original rather than culled from previous albums; Gill had a hand in writing each of the 43 tracks. Each disc is divided into its own genre (rock, jazz, bluegrass/acoustic and straight-up country). Furthermore, each disc is masterfully executed. Fortunately, These Days does not prove the old “less is more” adage. Instead, it only leaves us longing for more. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Sweet Thing”, “Faint of Heart (with Diana Krall)”, “Little Brother”, “Some Things Never Change (featuring Emmylou Harris)
Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose
She had already made a fine latter-day album with 2000′s Still Country, but Loretta Lynn’s crowning artistic moment of the last thirty years came when rocker Jack White offered to turn his semi-fetishization of Lynn’s music and persona into a full LP. As you’d expect of a project born of such fanboy fantasy, White was not shy about dressing up Loretta in his favorite things – in this case, snaky electric guitars and loose, often atmospheric arrangements that made the Kentucky gal sound more raw, Gothic and edgy than she ever had in her bouncy classic singles. But White also had the good sense not to let his little indulgences distract from the fantastic artist on his hands, who wrote herself a batch of sharp, soulful songs that capture the essence of what truly makes real country music – and Lynn herself – rock so hard. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Portland, Oregon”, “Trouble On the Line”, “Family Tree”, “Miss Being Mrs.”
Johnny Cash, American III: Solitary Man
It’s astounding how some artists can convey as much meaning through voice as they can through lyric. Cash performs covers and original material alike so affectingly on this Grammy-award winning album that you feel like you can reach out and touch what you’re hearing. It’s a stunningly haunting, uniquely introspective project, carried by the strength of Cash’s wisdom and transcendent voice. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Before My Time”, “I’m Leaving Now”, “Solitary Man”, “I See a Darkness”
Old Crow Medicine Show, Old Crow Medicine Show
Old Crow Medicine Show’s first and best progressive acoustic album is difficult to label as far as genre is concerned. However, what can be defined is that there are elements of bluegrass, country, folk, etc., which all culminate in a mighty fine debut effort from a band that has developed an impressive cult following as a result. With overt drug references, subtler (though still obvious) political undertones, quiet philosophical moments and some simply fun numbers, this album never gets tiresome, which is a testament to its long lasting substance as a whole. – LW
Recommended Tracks: “Tell It to Me”, “Big Time in the Jungle”, “Wagon Wheel”
Kathy Mattea, Coal
Kathy Mattea’s Coal is a near-perfect example of an album acting as a single piece of art. More than a collection of mining songs, Coal, co-produced by Marty Stuart, is a brutal and beautiful look at a way of life that is both challenging and enlightening. Notable tracks include “Dark as a Dungeon,” delivered with meticulous but even intensity; the haunting “Red-Winged Blackbird,” with its blood and coal color imagery; and the a cappella “Black Lung,” an impressive choice in which Mattea successfully pushes the boundaries of her musical abilities. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “Blue Diamond Mines”, “Red-Winged Blackbird”, “Sally in the Garden”, “Dark as a Dungeon”
Miranda Lambert, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Call it potential realized: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the album we all knew Lambert could make, and waited on the tips of our toes to hear. Her follow-up to Kerosene is a rich, defiant album that conveys a sharp perspective and a clear musical identity. Amidst a spunky blend of twang and rock, she draws from a more incisive set of songwriting skills and packs a hell of a believable punch, like on her first top ten hit, “Gunpowder & Lead.” And the punch isn’t reserved for the fiery numbers, as the album’s most gripping track comes in the form of pure tenderness. The wistful lament “More Like Her” is one of the best and most heartbreaking songs of this decade. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Famous in a Small Town”, “More Like Her”, “Dry Town”, “Love Letters”
Gary Allan, Tough All Over
A rough, scattered, imperfect and wholly realistic 12-track grieving process. By the time of the tragic personal events leading to this album, Allan had already proven he could interpret a song better than just about anyone working in the genre; on Tough All Over, he took on the unimaginable task of interpreting his own battered emotional core. The results are striking, as he confronts not just his inevitable loneliness (“Best I Ever Had”, “Ring”, “Puttin’ Memories Away”), but also less tidy trackings of guilt (“I Just Got Back From Hell”), self-loathing (“What Kind of Fool”), spite (the title track), and reluctant hope (“Nickajack Cave [Johnny Cash's Redemption]“, “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful”). Country music and Allan himself have produced several more beautiful albums this past decade, but none that sounded quite so necessary. – DM
Recommended Tracks: “Tough All Over”, “I Just Got Back From Hell”, “Ring”, “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful”
The fact that neither Kasey Chambers nor Shane Nicholson make particularly traditional-sounding music on their own makes it all the more incredible that they have joined together to create one of the rootsiest records on this list. Aside from the intriguing, though processed “Jackson Hole”, the songs on Rattlin’ Bones sound more like beloved classics than the original Chambers and Nicholson compositions that they actually are. The naturally compatible husband-wife pairing has created an album full of crisp, majestic harmonies, distinctive melodies and intriguing lyrics, easily making this album one of the most sonically pleasing and substantive albums of the decade. – LW
Recommended Tracks: “Rattlin’ Bones”, “Monkey on A Wire”, “One More Year”, “No One Hurts Up Here”
Dixie Chicks, Home
This was our top selection by such a wide margin that it’s tempting to just say, “Of course it’s the greatest album of the decade. It’s Home.” But one sentence does not a justification for best album of the decade make, so let me go on to say that Home is conclusive proof that a modern country album can tear down the walls between radio-friendly and artistic, mainstream and Americana, pure country and crossover, revealing that while they looked like stone, they were paper walls all along.
It was a hint of further greatness to come that the Chicks were able to pen some of their own material and have it stand proudly among the very best works of brilliant songwriters, and the album became a classic because the songs really are the best ever written by Darrell Scott (“Long Time Gone”), Stevie Nicks (“Landslide”), Bruce Robison (“Travelin’ Soldier”), Radney Foster, (“Godspeed [Sweet Dreams]), and Patty Griffin (“Truth No. 2 and “Top of the World”). But with the acoustic production and their decision to record three-part harmonies for the first time, the result is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Despite the formula being so simple – great songs + great vocals + great production = great album – Home is a reminder of just how difficult that formula is to pull off. Released back in 2002, no country album has come along since to match its quality. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Long Time Gone”, “Truth No. 2″, “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”, “Top of the World”