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”
Kathy Mattea has rarely sounded more open and warm than on this set of innovative folk-tinged songs. Topics of peace, love, resignation and heartache are sensitively explored in songs both written by Mattea and other well-known names, including captivating interpretations of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Me Shelter” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Down on the Corner.” It’s a rich album with a decisively vibrant feel. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Gimme Shelter”, “Down on the Corner”, “Give It Away”
Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around
American IV: The Man Comes Around was the last Cash album released in his lifetime; the bulk of its tracks are covers performed by the then ailing singer. Amazingly enough, the album seems almost biographical despite the limited material written by Cash. Still, American IV is not limited to “Hurt” (written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails), as other well-interpreted covers and Cash’s own “The Man Comes Around” help cement the depth of the album. – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “The Man Comes Around”, “Hurt”, “Sam Hall”
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
The media hype machine had a field day with Johnson’s breakthrough sophomore album, showering it with the kind of superlatives usually reserved for miracle cures and immaculate conceptions (see also: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). Most of the attention went to the album’s counterculturism within the increasingly safe and watered-down Music Row, with numerous nods to its Outlaw aesthetic and “cocaine and a whore” business. But That Lonesome Song‘s greatness was always more than contextual, and certainly more than attitudinal; this is an album with a genuine story to tell, filled with a slow-burning sorrow that pervades every track and doesn’t rest until the wife finally walks away and the husband resigns himself to playing seedy bars and trying to convince you he’s worthy of comparison to the greats. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “High Cost Of Living”, “Angel”, “Dreaming My Dreams With You”
For all of the attention given to her power ballads and catchy pop numbers, Faith Hill has always included more offbeat material from lesser known songwriters. This album had some great power ballads and catchy pop numbers, but its heart and soul comes from the trio of Lori McKenna songs that make up its core. “Stealing Kisses” just might be Hill’s finest moment to date, and the other two McKenna songs – “If You Ask” and the title track – are nearly as good. – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Dearly Beloved”, “Stealing Kisses”, “Wish For You”
Vince Gill, Next Big Thing
Gill dips into a wider range of styles and subjects on his first self-produced album, but it all seems to thoughtfully tie back to his classically sweet sound – a tricky thing to do in country music. Next Big Thing is mature, clever and vocally spot-on, and features some killer guest vocals from Emmylou Harris, Lee Ann Womack and others. – TS
Easily one of the most versatile artists in country music, Underwood is capable of tackling almost any musical style, and she makes a solid case for this on her third album. The kicker, though, is that rather than signaling a lack of identity, each style feels like a natural extension of herself as an artist. She’s mournful on a haunting country standard in one breath, and commanding on a rock-charged up-tempo in the next – all without compromising her authenticity. Most significantly, Underwood finally digs a little deeper on Play On, marrying her extraordinary vocal proficiency with a higher level of tangible, sincere conviction than ever before. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Someday When I Stop Loving You”, “Songs Like This”, “What Can I Say”
Rodney Crowell, The Outsider
Crowell’s take on mid-decade politics avoids heavy-handedness, perhaps because what he’s appealing to is not so much partisanship as patriotism in its purest form: “Democracy won’t work if we’re asleep. That kind of freedom is a vigil you must keep.” Bonus points for not one, but two guest turns from Emmylou Harris, the highlight being their stunning duet of Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm.” – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Dancin’ Circles ‘Round the Sun (Epictetus Speaks)”, “Don’t Get Me Started”, “Shelter From the Storm”
The Little Willies, The Little Willies
Norah Jones pet country side project with four of her New York City friends, including former boyfriend bassist Lee Alexander, results inn an inextricably fun album named after Willie Nelson who is covered twice on the project (“Gotta Get Drunk” and “Night Life”). The productions, including jaunty piano and prominent bass, along with Jones’ atypically loose vocals, make this disc a thrilling listening experience. While The Little Willie’s self titled album is not tight in technical terms, the album is all the better for it. – LW
Recommended Tracks: “Roll On”, “Gotta Get Drunk”, “Tennessee Stud”
Trisha Yearwood, Real Live Woman
Upon its release, the artist declared that she’d finally made her dream album. It’s easy to understand why, as Real Live Woman is Trisha Yearwood’s most cohesive album to date. It has a warmth and depth that makes it more than just reminiscent of Linda Ronstadt’s classic L.A. country albums from the mid-seventies. It’s actually on par with them. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Where Are You Now”, “Try Me Again”, “When a Love Song Sings the Blues”
Kris Kristofferson, Broken Freedom Song: Live From San Francisco
For each unequivocal success like At Folsom Prison and Nirvana Unplugged, there are a dozen uninspired live albums that simply exist to capitalize on old material. Kris Kristofferson’s Broken Freedom Songs, with his extended introductions and banter, is an unequivocal success. Along with its friendly and almost conversational tone, Broken Freedom Songs focuses on unexpected compositions and makes a nice addition to other historically strong live albums. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “The Circle”, “Here Comes that Rainbow Again”, “Moment of Forever”
When Rodney Crowell had his gold-selling commercial breakthrough with the album Diamonds & Dirt, his previous label was quick to capitalize on his success. Usually, pre-hit cash-in CDs are little more than a curiosity, but Crowell’s is the exception.
There is a smorgasbord of great material here, including early versions of songs that Crowell would see other artists have success with the same songs.
Some of Crowell’s strongest compositions are here, such as:
“‘Til I Gain Control Again”, a #1 hit for Crystal Gayle that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
“I Ain’t Living Long Like This”, a #1 hit for Waylon Jennings that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
“Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”, a #1 hit for the Oak Ridge Boys that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
“Ashes By Now”, a top five hit for Lee Ann Womack that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
“I Don’t Have to Crawl”, a minor hit for Emmylou Harris that was later recorded by Rosanne Cash
“Shame on the Moon”, a top fifteen country hit for Bob Seeger
“Victim or a Fool”, a top forty hit for Crowell that was also recorded by Crystal Gayle
“Stars on the Water”, later covered by George Strait and Jimmy Buffett
How good was this guy’s ear? Even the songs he didn’t write went on to become hits, with Ricky Skaggs taking “Heartbroke” to #1 and Juice Newton scoring a massive pop hit with “Queen of Hearts.” The only thing missing here is “Elvira”, which Crowell also recorded first.
This has always been a budget collection, but now it’s incredibly affordable – twelve tracks for $5.49. Given that Warner is asking for $9.90 for the far inferior Pam Tillis Collection, which includes only ten tracks, this one’s a steal.
Country Universe contributor and reader Cory DeStein flagged this rundown from Billboard regarding women on the charts this decade:
PERFECT 10: On Country Songs, Carrie Underwood ropes her 10th top 10, as “Cowboy Casanova” climbs 11-8. With the advance, Underwood now stands alone in first-place for most top 10s on the chart among solo women this decade.
Here are the solo females with the most top 10s on Country Songs since 2000:
10, Carrie Underwood
9, Faith Hill
9, Martina McBride
8, Taylor Swift
7, Sara Evans
7, Reba McEntire
6, Jo Dee Messina
5, LeAnn Rimes
5, Gretchen Wilson
4, Shania Twain
Notably, the artist who led the category among women last decade did so with almost three times as many top 10s. Reba McEntire ranked first among solo women in the ’90s with 27 top 10s on Country Songs. Trisha Yearwood placed second with 18 between 1990 and 1999, and Faith Hill, Patty Loveless and Tanya Tucker each posted 14 in that span.
The decline in fortune for women at radio this decade is even more pronounced when you compare the above top ten to the previous decade:
Most Top Ten Singles by a Female Artist – 1990-1999:
Reba McEntire (27)
Trisha Yearwood (18)
Faith Hill (14)
Patty Loveless (14)
Tanya Tucker (14)
Pam Tillis (13)
Lorrie Morgan (12)
Shania Twain (12)
Martina McBride (10)
That’s ten women who matched Underwood’s total for this decade. That Underwood didn’t even hit the top ten for the first time until late 2005 shows how bleak it was at radio for female artists this year.
But this comparison doesn’t even tell the whole story. Take a look at the list of women with the most top ten singles two decades ago:
Most Top Ten Singles by a Female Artist – 1980-1989:
Reba McEntire (23)
Crystal Gayle (22)
Dolly Parton (21)
Janie Fricke (17)
Barbara Mandrell (17)
Rosanne Cash (16)
Emmylou Harris (16)
Anne Murray (14)
Tanya Tucker (12)
Kathy Mattea (10)
Notice the trend? This decade, the top ten women combined for a total of 70 top ten hits. In the 90′s, the top ten women enjoyed a total of 145 top ten hits. In the eighties, a total of 168 top ten hits. Even the nineties list is dominated by women who were played heavily in the earlier part of the decade.
What’s strange is that it was in the mid-nineties that female artists became the dominant commercial force in country music. Janie Fricke never had a gold album. Shania Twain has sold 48 million albums. Yet Fricke had more top ten hits in just the eighties than Shania Twain has earned in her entire career. Record buyers have wholeheartedly embraced Alison Krauss and Miranda Lambert, but despite their strong sales, they’ve each enjoyed only one solo top ten hit.
So what to make of all of this? Is the recent success of Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood an indication that things are improving for women on the radio dial? Is it worth noting that Sugarland and Jennifer Nettles (11 top ten hits) and the Dixie Chicks (14 top ten hits) have done their part to compensate for this lack of gender parity? Does it even matter that radio is playing women less often each decade, especially if record buyers are finding their music anyway?
Inhabiting the highest pinnacle of artistic integrity must be a lonely place to dwell. Patty Loveless remains a commercial exile, of sorts for the crime of being “too country” for country radio and TV. But Loveless is undistracted by the trendy and continues to adhere to her artistic vision, making music that matters, music of enduring merit, music that would make her Appalachian ancestors very proud. Music like her current offering, Mountain Soul II.
Back in 2001, her acclaimed Mountain Soul set a very high standard for artistic achievement. This shining original is a unique blend of Country, Bluegrass and Mountain music. It is a heartfelt tribute to her parents, especially her coal-miner father, and the Appalachian music that nurtured and sustained their family through many tribulations.
Mountain Soul II is yet another labor of love from Patty Loveless and husband/producer Emory Gordy Jr. and a long awaited continuation of the splendid original. The same recipe was followed here with similar ingredients and equally spectacular results. Like the original, Mountain Soul II is a veritable feast of soul nourishing material, brilliantly served up by the finest pure-Country vocalist of our time, and a distinguished array of acoustic players and vocalists including Del McCoury, Vince Gill and Emmylou Harris.
Sandwiched between the stunningly innovative remake of Harlan Howard’s classic, “Busted”, and the exquisite Diamond in My Crown are generous servings of drumless acoustic music, a deeply moving, grassy mountain tapestry that delights and seldom disappoints.
“Busted”, the opener, is an empathetic song of solidarity for the economically downtrodden. Loveless restores Harlan Howard’s original coal mining lyrics with great effect. Raw and richly textured, the song is saturated with Appalachian acoustics that perfectly complement Patty’s twangy and nuanced Kentucky drawl. The melody is bouncy, almost in contradiction to the dire tale, but this is perhaps the perfect mountain irony; the power of music to help bring about the joy needed to cope.
The Bluegrass/Gospel classic, “Working on A Building” is an energetic tour-de-force with the perfectly blended high lonesome vocals of Loveless and Bluegrass master Del McCoury. The song is metaphorical, the work is God’s work, the hands are human, and the building is the Lord’s own. But the imperative is very down-to-earth, especially when interpreted as pertaining to the efforts to alleviate Appalachian poverty, a cause near and dear to Patty’s heart.
Other highlights include the pure Bluegrass Big Chance (transplanted from Dreamin’ My Dreams), a brilliant number by Loveless/Gordy which continues the Pretty Little Miss story from the first Mountain Soul. The song has an iconic Mountain sound that harkens to the hills, and is full of down home humor. It is perfectly crafted in every musical and lyrical detail.
“Bramble and the Rose” is pure passion and poetry, intertwined with the brilliant rustic tones of Loveless’ versatile voice. Few can inhabit the heart of a song like Patty Loveless.
“When the Last Curtain Falls” is a song that Emory co-wrote. The verses are all calm before the storming chorus, and then Loveless unleashes with her husband’s lyrics delivering a chilling cautionary tale of final accountability. It is an attitude adjustment that puts all things into perspective.
Mountain Soul II is inspired and very well crafted, but it does contain some apparent missed opportunities. Conspicuously absent are two up-tempo Bluegrass numbers from Loveless’ repertoire, Pretty Polly and Close By. Their inclusion would have enhanced the clear Mountain identity of the project even more, and would have created a more balanced mix of tempos.
Also the “less is more” philosophy is overdone in places, the sparse instrumentation works very well on songs like Diamond In My Crown, and the two a-cappella Gospel numbers, but some of the ballads might have benefited from some richer, rawer musical textures.
At first glance, there seems to be an over reliance on recut songs from her own catalog. But Patty Loveless brings forth the inherent Mountain Soul hidden in any given Country song, remaking them according to her natural Mountain sensibilities, and connecting more deeply with her own heritage in the process. She lovingly returns the songs to their essence and roots, back to the very origins of Country music deep in the heart of the hills.
Vocally, Mountain Soul II is Loveless at her best. Her crystal pure Appalachian alto deftly and fluidly shapes each note with rich and resonant tones and an uncanny sense of nuance that comes only with inherent talent and hard gained artistic maturity.
“Diamond in My Crown”, is the crown jewel of this remarkable album. It is hymn-like in its majesty, accompanied by an antique family pump organ, and some beautiful backing by composer Emmylou Harris. Loveless glows with unleashed vocalizations that are positively chill inducing. Transcendent, sublime, superlatives would be understatements when describing the Loveless interpretation of this gem.
Patty Loveless has once again transmuted the coal of hardship an heartache into pure golden tones. This Appalachian alchemy has yielded yet another diamond for her hard won crown. Mountain Soul II is nothing less than another 21st century Patty Loveless masterpiece.
I’ve been working my way through the Beatles Remasters that were released earlier this week, thoroughly enjoying myself in the process. As I listened to Help!, I heard Ringo Starr doing his best Buck Owens imitation as they covered “Act Naturally.”
It’s pretty darn cool that the Beatles covered Buck Owens, and plenty of country artists have returned the favor ever since. With the Beatles all over the media these days, it seems as good a time as any to look back on some of country music’s biggest and best takes on the Beatles catalog:
Rosanne Cash, “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” and “I’m Only Sleeping”
Cash is the only country artist to score a #1 hit with a cover of a Beatles song, as her take on the Beatles For Sale track “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” became her eleventh and final #1 hit in 1989. An even better listen is her take on “I’m Only Sleeping” from her Retrospective release. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a much better song than “Party”, pulled from Revolver, arguably the best album the Beatles ever made.
Nickel Creek, “Taxman”
This progressive bluegrass band sounds great on record, but you don’t really get the full experience of their talent until you’ve seen their live show. Perhaps all of those royalties from their platinum-selling debut album pushed them into a higher tax bracket, as “Taxman” - another Revolver highlight – soon became a staple of their live shows.
Emmylou Harris, “For No One” and “Here, There and Everywhere”
Her first two solo albums included one Revolver cover each. She turns “For No One” into a pensive ballad on her debut set Pieces of the Sky and gives a gorgeous rendering of “Here, There and Everywhere” on her sophomore effort Elite Hotel.
Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, “Yesterday”
It really does sound like a Haggard and Nelson song when Haggard and Nelson do it.
Anne Murray, “You Won’t See Me”
Amazingly, John Lennon said this was the best Beatles cover he’d ever heard.
Those are some of the most notable country Beatles covers I could think of. What are your favorites? Least favorites?