Tag Archives: Emmylou Harris

Grammy Awards 2012: Staff Picks & Predictions

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.

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

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

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Twelve Songs of Christmas: Day Eight

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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Someone Like You

I didn’t expect much.

I’ve had the Adele album for a good bit now, and “Someone Like You” is my favorite track on it.  I’d already heard how the song shot to #1 in the U.K. after she performed it on the Brit Awards.

I checked out that performance, and thought it was good. Not great, but good.

So when I heard all the buzz about her performance of the song on Sunday’s MTV Awards, I didn’t rush to check it out, and ended up just watching it last night out of boredom.

I can’t tell if it’s because she was a bit hoarse, or if she was trying to hold back her tears. Either way, it was so stunningly powerful that I was even a bit shaken up by the whole thing.

I know that there’s going to be the inevitable claims of authenticity and real talent and such, which makes sense given the pop landscape that she’s performing in.  But honestly, it’s been a really long time since anything has happened on a country music stage that’s even come close to what Adele pulled off that night.

It reminded me of Reba McEntire’s performance of “For My Broken Heart” on the 1991 CMA Awards.  She’s a seasoned pro who rarely misses a note, but she tears up so much in the final chorus that she can’t get the notes out, and imperfection that makes the performance timelessly perfect:

I can’t find the clip online, but it also reminded me of Vince Gill singing “The Key to Life” on the 1998 show, also breaking down in the final few lines of the song.  I miss moments like this in country music.

No wonder I’m so awfully disinterested in country this year.  Besides the usual mainstream drivel, I’ve also been disappointed by new albums from usually reliable folks like Dolly Parton, Todd Snider, Alison Krauss & Union Station, and even Emmylou Harris.   I’ve taken to pretending that The Civil Wars are somehow country so that I don’t write the genre off completely this year.

The only thing I’ve really loved so far?  Matraca Berg’s The Dreaming Fields.  It’s got that same rawness that must be speaking to me for some reason these days.  There’s no chance of Berg making it back on the radio in 2011, but with all the shameless format-hopping that’s been allowed by country programmers in recent years, maybe we can get them to give a few spins to Adele.

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Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Sara Evans

I was in my early teens when I first discovered Sara Evans… and I thought she was the greatest thing since sliced bread.  The rich, throaty texture of her distinct voice reeled me in, and her entertaining mixture of traditional and contemporary influences had me thoroughly hooked.  Now that I’ve also become familiar with the likes of Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood, and Emmylou Harris, my view of Sara is a little more in-perspective these days, but I do still consider myself a big fan, and she holds a special distinction as one of the first female country artists I really got into.

Radio passed on her when she first emerged as a neotraditionalist in the late nineties, but with future efforts, Sara went on to become a star, thanks to her ability to adapt to changing times while still staying true to herself.  She was one of the dominant female country voices on the radio dial in the early years of the twenty-first century, and after enduring a bit of a dry spell for a few years, she has recently experienced a commercial resurgence.

Though she maintained a fairly consistent quality standard for the better part of her career, recent years have seen that standard slipping thanks to subpar pop-country cuts in the vein of “Feels Just Like a Love Song.”  Nonetheless, Sara still deserves credit for having a solid body of work behind her that’s well worth remembering.  If we’re fortunate, perhaps we may one day see Sara make a return to form, or even delve back into her traditional country and bluegrass roots.

The following list includes many of the songs that best exemplify the qualities that drew me to the music of Sara Evans in the first place.  It’s not meant to be a strict listing of the songs that unquestionably rank as Sara’s “best;” (which would be pretty subjective anyway) It’s merely a list of my own personal favorites.  Let it be an enjoyable look back on some of Sara’s finest moments.  If you would like to share any of your own favorites in the comments section, please feel free to do so.

#25

“A Little Bit Stronger”

Stronger, 2011

Somehow, Sara’s comeback hit finds a way to hit my sweet spot for power ballads. (Yes, I actually do have a sweet spot for power ballads, though few have been able to hit it) What was it about this song that won me over?  Maybe it was the subtle strains of mandolin and steel.  Maybe it’s the build-up nature of the song – the way the progressive nature of the narrator’s healing is mirrored by the production and by Sara’s vocal delivery.  At any rate, the ingredients come together to form a record greater than the sum of its parts.

#24

“New Hometown”

Real Fine Place, 2005

It’s not just a song about how cool small-town life is.  Stylistically, the song even ranks as one of Sara’s most pop-friendly album tracks.  As Sara’s character expresses her desire to escape the hustle-and-bustle of city life, the song becomes a plea for a return to the simple things in life.  Though not all of us intend to make a big old move to a small town, no doubt many among us harbor a similar deep-down yearning just to “find a little earth to stand on.”

#23

“Perfect”

Restless, 2003

The catchy guitar hook is an instant attention-getter, but this number-two hit from Sara’s Restless album has a heart and a simple message at its core:  “Real love and real life doesn’t have to be perfect.”  Add in a few quirky and clever lines such as “If in every wedding picture my daddy looks annoyed, it’s all right,” as well as the fitting conclusion that “All the fairy tales tell a lie,” and you’ve got a real beauty.

#22

“Momma’s Night Out” 

Real Fine Place, 2005

I love this song mainly because it’s a side of Sara that we haven’t seen very often.  She’s rarely been one to record party songs.  But on this track, Sara takes on the role of an overworked mother who throws in the towel, leaves the kids with daddy, and hits the town with the girls.  Sara’s sassy vocal finds her as loose as she’s ever been, while the funky horn-infused production makes it an unforgettable track

#21

“Cupid”

No Place That Far, 1999

The distinct voice of George Jones, even when coming in the form of background vocals, has the ability to make a great song even greater (see Patty Loveless, “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me”).  In this shamelessly twangy steel-infused country rave-up from No Place That Far, the Possum joins Sara in delivering the unshakable hook of “Tell Cupid not to point that thing at me!”

#20

“Restless”

Restless, 2003

I have a bit of a weakness for country music that borrows from Irish and Celtic influences as this track does.  The gorgeous Celtic-harp-laced arrangement makes “Restless” a highlight of one of Sara’s most stylistically-diverse albums.  The lyrics are every bit as beautiful, poetically telling of a restless soul learning to make peace with the fact that she will be a wanderer until the day she dies.

#19

“Low”

Billy: The Early Years (soundtrack), 2008

Sara’s contribution to the Billy soundtrack is nothing short of a pure joy, replete with the sounds of pure country and bluegrass instrumentation.  Though the lyrics invoke religious elements, they don’t sound preachy at all.  It’s not a “You should live your life this way” kind of song;  It’s an “I’m going to live my life this way” kind of song.  It’s a proactive anthem of strength, resolve, and determination – more uplifting than a million Martina McBride power ballads combined.

#18

“I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

Fact:  Sara sounds best when singing traditional country music.  Going back and listening to Sara’s shamelessly neotraditional debut album is a joy for any fan of stone cold country.  Here she pays tribute to the vintage Bakersfield sound with a cover of a Buck Owens hit co-written by Harlan Howard.  Besides being a highlight of the Three Chords and the Truth album, this song was instrumental in helping Sara get the chance to snag a record deal and become a star.  It was when the legendary songwriter Harlan Howard himself heard Sara’s performance of his classic song that he threw all his efforts into helping the young talent get discovered.

#17

“Fool, I’m a Woman”

No Place That Far, 1999

This deliciously snarky tune has Matraca Berg’s fingerprints all over it.  In a composition by one of country’s finest songwriters, Sara plays off the age-old stereotype of a woman’s continual habit of changing her mind.  She scoffs at old romantic clichés as she pointedly tells off her soon-to-be-ex-lover – “You used to tell me so many nights/ You don’t deserve me/ Well maybe you were right.”  Ouch!

#16

“A Real Fine Place to Start”

Real Fine Place, 2005

I have a major affinity for songs that can effectively channel the excitement of a newfound romance, and this Radney Foster-penned number-one hit from 2005 squarely hits that target.  Thanks in large part to Sara’s soaring vocal performance, “A Real Fine Place to Start” is a fun, breezy record that bubbles over with energy and exuberance, and begs to be blasted out one’s car windows.  A shining example of pop-country done well.

#15

“Why Should I Care”

Born to Fly, 2000

A sparse pop-country ballad in which a woman struggles to make sense of the feelings of guilt and jealousy that suddenly surface when she finds out that her former lover has found someone new.

#14

“Imagine That”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

Sara’s take on this Patsy Cline torch ballad ranks as arguably one of the finest displays of Sara’s vocal talents that can be found on any of her studio albums.

#13

“Bible Song”

Real Fine Place, 2005

This melancholy Lori McKenna song was one of the best tracks on Real Fine Place.  While so many country stars have gleefully sang the praises of small-town living, “Bible Song” echoes the message that life in such idealistic small towns is not always what it’s cracked up to be.  The pace of life may be slower, but this tragic story of a young man’s drug-induced death shows that even small town residents at times fall prey to their own inner demons.

#12

“Rockin’ Horse”

Restless, 2003

A genuine nugget of wisdom is wrapped up in this blazing fiddle-shredder.  The narrator recounts a frightening childhood experience in which a tree falls near her family’s house after being struck by lightning.  Then her father carves the tree’s wood into a rocking horse that becomes one of her most treasured toys.   By showing how this experience shapes the narrator’s outlook on life, “Rockin’ Horse” becomes a colorful testament to the power of positive thinking, with its message summed up in the memorable hook “When it’s pouring down on me/ In my life I see the rockin’ horse inside the tree.”

#11

“As If”

Greatest Hits, 2007

Four new tracks were included on Sara’s 2007 Greatest Hits package, and this almost-Top 10 hit was by far the best.  With cheeky, humorous lyrics, Sara satirically poked fun at the human tendency toward infatuation that blinds one to all a person’s shortcomings.  The catchy melody and energetic performance made for an earworm of a record that was truly unforgettable.

#10

“What That Drink Cost Me”

Stronger, 2011

The new album could have benefited greatly from more songs like this.  This restrained steel guitar weeper is the stuff of a country classic – a heart-wrenching tale of the destructive power of alcohol.  Though the Stronger album as a whole found Sara saddled with an excess of disposable material, the fact that it also included one of the best songs she had written in years is an encouraging sign.  Besides that, “What That Drink Cost Me” is yet another example of one of the qualities that I’ve always appreciated about Sara’s music:  Even after she went in a more pop-flavored musical direction, her traditional country influences were never fully snuffed out.

#9

“If You Ever Want My Lovin’”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

This loose, flirty, upbeat little ditty was co-written by Sara along with Billy Yates and Melba Montgomery.  Though the cheeky lyrics can put an instant smile on one’s face, the record’s most endearing trait is Sara’s raw, expressive vocal delivery.  Though Sara’s Missouri twang is toned back on some of her more pop-oriented material, this record allows that twang to stand front and center.

#8

“Unopened”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

This was the only original song on Sara’s debut album on which she did not share writing credits, originating from the pen of Leslie Satcher.  As the song’s narrator discovers evidence of a secret love from her man’s past, she views his willingness to leave it behind as evidence of his genuine love for her.  She resolves to return that love by trusting in her man, and allowing his secret to remain a secret.

#7

“No Place That Far”

No Place That Far, 1999

Vince Gill is one of country music’s favorite harmony vocalists (besides being an A-list legend in his own right), and he adds something particularly special to the hauntingly beautiful love song that was Sara’s breakthrough chart-topper.  The song reaches a crescendo in the final chorus as Sara sings “If I had to run, if I had to crawl…” and is answered each time by that distinctive tenor.  It’s as if we’re listening to two lovers singing to one another from afar off, pledging their unwavering determination to be reunited.  Though it’s a great lyric in its own right, the chemistry of the two performers gives the story an extra layer that can’t be seen just by looking at the lyrics on paper.

#6

“I Learned That from You”

Born to Fly, 2000

Though found on one of Sara’s most pop-oriented albums, “I Learned from You” was one of the finest and most country tracks on Sara’s breakthrough album Born to Fly.  A heavy-hearted reflection on the difficult leassons learned from a first love that didn’t last, while also an appreciative recollection of all the happy memories that were made at the time.

#5

“Coalmine”

Real Fine Place, 2005

The timing was unfortunate for the release of this underplayed gem that offered a glimpse of Sara’s mountain bluegrass influences.  A flirty, playful lyric and performance added up to a song that was loads of fun as Sara fawned over her man “walking out of that coalmine, covered with dust, T-shirt tight, all muscled up.”  This is one Sara Evans single that is definitely deserving of a re-release.

#4

“Three Chords and the Truth”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

The title track of Sara’s debut is a testament to the power of country music in dredging up deeply held emotions in a listener – emotions that we might have ignored in the past.  It’s the kind of song that always reminds me why I love country music so much.  Sara’s character hears a country song on the radio for the first time, and it not only brings back the emotions, but it moves her to action.  It motivates her to turn the car around and reconcile with the lover she had intended to leave far behind.  “Three Chords” is a beautifully constructed story that effectively pays tribute to country music at its best, demonstrating that there’s so much more to this unique and special genre than what the ugly stereotypes would lead some to believe.

#3

“Suds In the Bucket”

Restless, 2003

Besides being an excellent singalong driving jam, this fiddle-and-steel-laden hit is a humorous glimpse at tongue-wagging small-town culture, sans the chest-pounding backwoods clichés that are common on country radio today.  Fun, playful, and full of personality, this country rave-up was the song that first got me into Sara Evans, and it’s remained a personal favorite of mine ever since.  It never fails to make me feel happy.

#2

“Cheatin’”

Real Fine Place, 2005

This Top Ten hit takes a classic country music theme – infidelity – and puts a distinct and memorable spin on it.  After having parted ways with an unfaithful spouse, Sara’s character gloats over the unpleasant living situation her ex has since found himself in.  But as the lyric progresses, she reveals that she has been genuinely hurt by his actions, and she unashamedly drops the bomb of “Yes, I’ll be glad to take you back just as soon as I stop breathing.”  Amusingly spiteful and achingly emotional at the same time, “Cheatin’” exemplifies the layered organic storytelling that makes for a killer country song, while the traditional-styled arrangement acts as the perfect sonic backdrop to Sara’s bitterly nuanced performance.

#1

“Born to Fly”

Born to Fly, 2000

Sara’s career record remains one of her most enduring and effortlessly charming hits, and with it’s distinctive drumbeat intro and bluegrass-tinged instrumentation, it’s definitely one of her most recognizeable.  “Born to Fly” is an endearing coming-of-age tale of a young woman exploring her potential in life, and seeking to find her place in the world.  It manages to perfect the magic formula of possessing a unique identity of its own, while still being universal such that a wide array of individuals can relate to the feelings it expresses.  Who among us has never gone through this period of life as a young person?  We’ve all been at that crossroads point in life, and felt what it’s like to be “starin’ down the road, just lookin’ for my one chance to run.”

In a way, the song could also be seen as symbolic of the point Sara was at in her career when she recorded it.  Would her third album improve on the moderate success of No Place That Far, or would it be ignored like the commercially-underappreciated Three Chords and the Truth?  It was with this album and single that Sara struck platinum with a style that was just slick enough to be commercially friendly without sacrificing the heart of her earlier work.  The result?  Her career ‘soared away like a blackbird.’

In a career that has included many memorable singles, “Born to Fly” is one of the very finest.

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Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Rodney Crowell

As most of my favorite artists tend to be, Rodney is talented in multiple ways. Not only does he have a charismatic voice, he’s an accomplished musician, songwriter and producer. He has used these talents for himself, but has also shared them with many other artists. In fact, high-profile artists like Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Johnny Cash, Chely Wright, among many others, have benefited from his musicianship, compositions and producing abilities.

In this feature, we will focus on some of the best Rodney Crowell songs–whether they were big hits, minor hits or unreleased album tracks—but these twenty-five songs certainly do not do enough justice to this man’s contribution to country music. As a result, look for an accompanying Favorite Songs by Favorite Songwriters feature on Rodney Crowell to come soon.

#25
“You’ve Been on My Mind”

from the 1989 album Keys to the Highway

The lyrics are a little ambiguous, but it’s clear that this is a lonesome song about love lost. Crowell can do a lonesome song with the best of them and he does just that here.

#24
“Telephone Road”

from the 2001 album The Houston Kid

With an infectious, driving production, “Telephone Road” depicts Crowell’s childhood with fondness (an ice cream from the ice cream truck was only 5 cents), but without the irresponsible nostalgia that seems to afflict many such songs of today (I’m looking at you Bucky Covington). To be totally shallow, this is one to blast on some good speakers.

#23
“Adam’s Song”

from the 2003 album Fate’s Right Hand

Anyone who has experienced the passing of a loved one knows the reality that Crowell sings about. As he knowingly observes, “We’ll keep learning how to live with a lifelong broken heart.”

#22
“Many A Long and Lonesome Highway”

from the 1989 album Keys to the Highway

This is the first song I’d ever heard by Rodney Crowell. At the time, I had just gotten into country music and the song was already four or five years old, but I had no idea of his history. I simply thought it was a great, melodic song. I still do.

#21
“Song for the Life”

from the 1978 album Ain’t Living Long Like This

To me, this song sounds mature and reflective, from a man who has lived and learned. However, in a 2005 20 Questions interview with CMT, Rodney reveals that he wrote this song when he was a mere twenty-one years old. And, is that Willie Nelson I hear singing background vocals? Yes, it is.

#20
“Fate’s Right Hand”

from the 2003 album Fate’s Right Hand

The title track of the critically acclaimed Fate’s Right Hand explores changing times and injustices much better than Toby Keith’s “American Ride” does.

#19
“Topsy Turvy”

from the 2001 album The Houston Kid

This song vividly paints the picture of Crowell’s parents’ abusive relationship. It’s from his perspective as the fully aware child who witnesses the turbulence. He doesn’t mince words throughout the song, but especially when he admits, “I cross my heart and tell myself ‘I hope they die’”. He also details the lack of meaningful response from neighbors and police officers.

#18
“Beautiful Despair

from the 2005 album The Outsider

It’s not a feeling that one wants to embrace often, but there are times when leaning into that feeling of despair propels one to action or at least some needed introspection. From this song, it’s likely that despair has played a beautiful function in his life.

#17
“Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”

from the 1978 album Ain’t Living Long Like This

Emmylou Harris was one of the first people to record a Rodney Crowell song and what a gem it is. While Harris’ recording of it is the strongest and most exuberant version, Crowell’s version is great too.

#16
“This Too Will Pass”

from the 2003 album Fate’s Right Hand

What I like about a Rodney Crowell penned inspirational song is that it’s not embarrassing to listen to. It’s inspiring without sounding like a page from Chicken Soup for the Soul.

#15
“My Baby’s Gone” (with Emmylou Harris)

from the 2003 album Livin’ Lovin’ Losin': Songs of the Louvin Brothers

From the excellent Louvin Brothers tribute album, one of the many shining moments is this duet from Rodney and Emmylou Harris. It just cements the fact that they need to do a duets album. Stat!

#14
“The Rock of My Soul”

from the 2001 album The Houston Kid

While this song is not strictly autobiographical, it is a chilling representation of Crowell’s tumultuous experiences with his father.

#13
“Dancin’ Circles Round the Sun (Epictetus Speaks)”

from the 2005 album The Outsider

Here’s another example of Rodney Crowell inspiring without sickening.

#12
“After All This Time”

from the 1988 album Diamonds & Dirt

If you’re not listening carefully, you might think this is a pretty love song. It, however, is a wistful love song to a relationship that no longer exists.

#11
“I Walk the Line Revisited” (With Johnny Cash)

from the 2001 album The Houston Kid

This is a joyful account of the first time Crowell heard Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” on the radio as a kid. It’s an obvious full circle moment when Cash sings an altered melody of the classic on Crowell’s song about it.

#10
“We Can’t Turn Back”

from the 2005 album The Outsider

In his gentle but no nonsense way, Crowell explores the notion that we can’t change the past, which means that we can only focus on the present and what we can do to make it better.

#9
“Artemis and Orion”

from the 2003 digital release Lost Tracks

Supported by a delightfully simple production and memorable tune, Rodney sings a version of the story of Artemis and Orion from Greek Mythology. I’m not sure of the origins of the song, since it seems to have been randomly recorded by Crowell, but it is fun to listen to.

#8
“’Til I Gain Control Again”

from the 1981 album Rodney Crowell

Crowell has written several songs that have become classics for him and for others. “’Til I Gain Control Again” was first recorded by Emmylou Harris in the mid-seventies, then made famous by Crystal Gayle in the early eighties and subsequently recorded by many artists over the years. Crowell’s own version is beautifully sung with just the right air of forlornness.

#7
“Things that Go Bump in the Day”

from the 2005 album The Outsider

I hardly even know what this song means, but I still love it for its bouncy production, unshakable melody and Crowell’s energy while singing it. I dare you not to get it stuck in your head.

#6
“The Outsider”

from the 2005 album The Outsider

The effective use of horns in this bluesy soul infused song is enough to hook me, but the theme of being okay with being different is something to embrace too.

#5
“Things I Wish I Said”

from the 1989 album Keys to the Highway

Much has been written and said about Rodney Crowell’s difficult relationship with his violent father, but the end of that story is that they found a way to heal their relationship and turn it into something healthy and tender. This song is personal to Crowell as it describes the relief that he feels that he has no regrets with the passing of his father. Likewise, it is a universal sentiment that most of us can relate to as well.

#4
“She’s Crazy for Leaving”

from the 1988 album Diamonds & Dirt

I love this song because both the melody and the song’s vividly painted story are equally funky. The scene that’s created for the song is fodder for a hilarious and ridiculous comedy sketch.

#3
“Riding Out the Storm”

from the 2003 album Fate’s Right Hand

A not so beautiful picture is underscored by a beautiful melody and poetic lyrics. That’s one of Rodney Crowell’s effortless songwriting talents.

#2
“Making Memories of Us”

from the 2004 album The Notorious Cherry Bombs

Keith Urban is who made this song famous and Crowell a little richer, but Rodney Crowell, backed by Vince Gill, is who makes it a fine treasure. Written for his wife as a last minute Valentine’s Day gift, it’s a tender love song that rivals most modern songs of its ilk. It’s one of those “action” songs that I especially love. He’s not just promising to love her, but also pledging to be an active part of their relationship in order to create meaningful memories.

#1
“Shelter from the Storm” (with Emmylou Harris)

from the 2005 album The Outsider

Again, there’s no reason that Emmylou and Rodney shouldn’t make a duets album together. With sublime vocal chemistry, they turn this Bob Dylan song into something entirely different than what it once was. Instead of having to dig for the gem, they put it out there front and center for us. It’s gorgeous and it’s their interpretation that makes it so.

In “Beautiful Despair”, Crowell acknowledges the depth of Bob Dylan’s songwriting and his feelings of inadequacy when compared to Dylan’s ability. He sings: “Beautiful despair is hearing Dylan/ When you’re drunk at 3 a.m. / Knowing that the chances are/ No matter what you’ll never write like him.”

As a Dylan fan, it may be heresy to think it, but methinks Rodney Crowell is being too hard on himself. It is not a knock on Rodney Crowell’s incredible songwriting that I chose a song that he did not write as my top Crowell song, but rather, a testament to his ability to interpret a legendary song well enough to make it his own.

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Single Review: Emmylou Harris, “The Road”

The story of Emmylou Harris is well established, the stuff of legend at this point.

She could’ve been Gram Parsons’ harmony singer for the rest of her career and been happy, but she ended up carrying on his legacy instead, becoming a Hall of Famer with the most consistently excellent catalog in country music history.

She’s addressed Parsons in song before, most directly with the grief-stricken classic “Boulder to Birmingham” from her 1975 classic Pieces of the Sky. Whereas that was a statement of heartbreak to a lost friend, “The Road” is a letter of gratitude, thanking him for starting her on a journey that she never would have embarked upon alone.

For future music historians, this song will be a goldmine.  For listeners, it’s pretty good, too.  Harris is a solid songwriter and her lyrics are closer to poetry than standard Nashville writing.  Her voice is showing signs of wear, but much like on the later work of Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, that works to her advantage.

Is it as good as the best tracks on All I Intended to Be or Stumble Into Grace?  Not quite, especially if you don’t know the back story and can’t fill in the gaps. But even very good Emmylou Harris is better than most of what’s out there today.  Still, I hope the rest of her upcoming album is more than just very good Emmylou Harris.

Written by Emmylou Harris

Grade: B+

Listen: The Road

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100 Greatest Men: #90. John Denver

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

His sweet AM radio sound resonated across genre boundaries, but for traditionalists, John Denver was where they would draw the line.

That such inoffensive music could ever cause such controversy may seem silly today, but Denver’s crossover success in the country market reached its peak with a 1975 CMA win for Entertainer of the Year.

Coming one short year after the hotly contested Olivia Newton-John win for Female Vocalist, presenter Charlie Rich may not have been in the right frame of mind when he lit the envelope on fire before announcing Denver’s win, but he certainly spoke for the wide dissent felt among the industry’s rank for these genre carpetbaggers.

But how did Denver get to the point that he’d even be a contender for country music’s top prize?  He started out as Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., born in New Mexico to a military family that moved around often. During a stint in Arizona, he spent two years as a member of the Tuscon Arizona Boys Chorus.

His interest in music was further developed when he received a guitar from his grandmother on his twelfth birthday. He was so enchanted with dreams of being a music star that while attending high school in Texas, he ran away to California with his father’s car, but was brought back home to finish high school.

He started out in the folk movement, joining The Mitchell Trio, which was eventually rebranded Denver, Boise, and Johnson by the time Denver departed. Fellow member Michael Johnson would also go on to a successful solo career, having big AC hits in the seventies before topping the country charts in the mid-eighties.

Denver’s solo career heated up quickly. Shortly after leaving the trio, he released his first solo album in 1969.  It wasn’t a runaway hit, but it featured a song called “Leavin’ On a Jet Plane”, which became a #1 hit for Peter, Paul and Mary later that year.  Two more solo albums floundered until he had his breakthrough as an artist with “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”  It was a huge pop hit, reaching #2 on the Hot 100, and made a minor impression on the country chart as well.

Now a platinum-selling artist, Denver’s brand of folk slowly took a more country turn. Unlike Newton-John, who was embraced by country music more fully than pop music at first, country radio came on board after Denver was already a regular fixture on the pop charts, starting with “Annie’s Song” in 1974.  After “Back Home Again” topped both charts, his subsequent singles in 1974 and 1975 would do better on the country charts, with “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and “I’m Sorry” becoming #1 country hits.

Thus the controversial win for Entertainer, which in retrospect has more to do with Nashville’s xenophobia than anything else. Listen to Denver’s big hits alongside Nashville songs of the same era, and they don’t sound particularly less country than a lot of it, especially the records of Rich, his personal flamethrower.

Denver’s style of music laid the groundwork for everyone from Mac McAnally and Dan Seals to Kathy Mattea and Zac Brown Band, and while his star soon faded on pop radio, he still made regular appearances on the country charts, scoring a bit of a comeback in the eighties with the top ten hits “Some Days are Diamonds (Some Days are Stone)” and “Dreamland Express.”  He also reached the top twenty with “Wild Montana Skies”, featuring the talents of Emmylou Harris on vocals.

Denver died tragically in a plane crash in 1997. While his contributions to country music were controversial at the time, memorials ran at both the Country Music Association awards and the Grammy Awards following his death, further solidifying the wide impact that this singer-songwriter made on contemporary music.

Essential Singles:

  • Take Me Home, Country Roads, 1970
  • Sunshine on My Shoulders, 1973
  • Annie’s Song, 1974
  • Back Home Again, 1974
  • Thank God I’m a Country Boy, 1975
  • Fly Away (with Olivia Newton-John), 1975
  • Looking For Space, 1976

Essential Albums:

  • Poems, Prayers, and Promises, 1971
  • Rocky Mountain High, 1972
  • Back Home Again, 1974
  • An Evening with John Denver, 1975
  • Windsong, 1975

Next:  #89. Sawyer Brown

Previous: #91. Diamond Rio

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

<a href=”../features/100-greatest-men/”>100 Greatest Men: The Complete List</a>

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400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #75-#51

As might be expected, the subject matters are getting more intense as we edge closer to the top.  But there’s still room for some carefree moments here, thanks to the Dixie Chicks and Jo Dee Messina.

400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #75-#51


#75
When You Say Nothing at All
Alison Krauss & Union Station
1995 | Peak: #3

Listen

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


#74
Alibis
Tracy Lawrence
1993 | Peak: #1

Listen

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

#73
Cowboy Take Me Away
Dixie Chicks
1999 | Peak: #1

Listen

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 Continue reading

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400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #325-#301

The first quarter of the countdown comes to a close, highlighted by excellent comeback attempts by T. Graham Brown, Emmylou Harris, and Willie Nelson.

400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #325-#301

#325
He Would Be Sixteen
Michelle Wright
1992 |  Peak: #31

Listen

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

#324
It Matters to Me
Faith Hill
1995  |  Peak: #1

Listen

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

#323
She’d Give Anything
Boy Howdy
1993  |  Peak: #4

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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

#322
The Trouble With the Truth
Patty Loveless
1997  |  Peak: #15

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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

#321
Still Gonna Die
Old Dogs
1999  |  Peak: Did Not Chart

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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

#320
Wanted
Alan Jackson
1990  |  Peak: #3

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An apology via a wanted ad could be disastrous in the hands of many male country artists, but it’s simply lovely in Jacksons’, ringing with sincerity and regret. – TS

#319
Finish What We Started
Diamond Rio
1995  |  Peak: #19

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While it’s not a part of the wedding song canon, this is a gorgeous declaration of commitment. – LW

#318
Tryin’ to Hide a Fire in the Dark
Billy Dean
1992  |  Peak: #6

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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

#317
She is Gone
Willie Nelson
1996  |  Peak: Did Not Chart

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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

#316
It Was
Chely Wright
1999  |  Peak: #11

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An ode to the nonsensical mess of emotions that accompany falling in love, just contradictory enough to make sense. – TS

#315
You Can Feel Bad
Patty Loveless
1995  |  Peak: #1

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As deft a take down of a departing lover there’s ever been.  Not since “You’re So Vain” has a jilted lover struck back so powerfully by simply holding up a mirror. – KC

#314
Till I Found You
Marty Stuart
1991  |  Peak: #12

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With a Roy Orbison feel, “Til I Found You” is a sweet declaration of finally finding the right one. – LW

#313
Blame it On Your Heart
Patty Loveless
1993 |  Peak: #1

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A shameless radio bid delivered with more power and charm than such bids generally deserve. – DM

#312
You Never Even Call Me By My Name
Doug Supernaw
1994 |  Peak: #60

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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

#311
Wine Into Water
T. Graham Brown
1998  |  Peak: #44

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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

#310
High Powered Love
Emmylou Harris
1993  |  Peak: #63

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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

#309
You Won’t Ever Be Lonely
Andy Griggs
1998  |  Peak: #2

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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

#308
A Door
Aaron Tippin
1997  |  Peak: #65

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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

#307
Someday Soon
Suzy Bogguss
1991  |  Peak: #12

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Suzy Bogguss takes this Ian Tyson cowboy folk song and makes it her own. She successfully breathes emotion into this wistful song that, once again, pits woman against rodeo. – LW

#306
The River
Garth Brooks
1992  |  Peak: #1

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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

#305
Time Passes By
Kathy Mattea
1991  |  Peak: #7

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Blessings are fleeting, and they’re best appreciated in the moment. It’s far more satisfying to celebrate them without the bittersweet tinge of regret. – KC

#304
You Can’t Stop Love
Marty Stuart
1996  |  Peak: #26

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To hear Marty Stuart tell it, there’s nothing more powerful than love. No matter what you do, you can’t stop it. True enough. – LW

#303
Everywhere
Tim McGraw
1997  |  Peak: #1

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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

#302
You’re Beginning to Get to Me
Clay Walker
1998  |  Peak: #2

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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

#301
Help Me Hold On
Travis Tritt
1990  |  Peak: #1

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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

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