Peak: #9 Written by George Ducas and Tia Sillers
One hit wonders were once an anomaly in country music. The nineties changed that, as the massive commercial success of the genre inspired more labels to get into the game. The result was more artists than country radio could ever play regularly, so even a breakthrough top ten hit was no longer enough to get radio to automatically give the next single a shot.
George Ducas was one of the earliest casualties of this new era. With a voice like Dwight Yoakam with a touch of Raul Malo, Ducas showed tremendous promise as a singer-songwriter. There’s a beautiful melancholy to his performance of “Lipstick Promises.” It’s the tale of a man who has been blinded by beauty and ends up being burned by his unfaithful lover.
It still sounds great today, and it’s a shame that radio didn’t give a fair shot to the singles that followed. “Hello Cruel World” and “Every Time She Passes By” were both on par with the better single releases of their day. Ducas exited his label after two projects, but has gone on to have some success as a songwriter, penning hits for Garth Brooks (“Beer Run)” and Sara Evans (“A Real Fine Place to Start.”) He’s also had songs recorded by Trisha Yearwood, Dixie Chicks, and Gary Allan.
Tia Sillers, co-writer of “Lipstick Promises”, went on to win major awards for “I Hope You Dance”, the peak of a songwriting career that has also included hits by Pam Tillis (“Land of the Living”), Trisha Yearwood (“Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love”), Dixie Chicks (“There’s Your Trouble”), and Alan Jackson (“That’d Be Alright.”)
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.
While Taylor Swift mania continues to grow, there’s another impressive accomplishment being achieved by two veterans of country music on the opposite end of the age spectrum.
Contrary to what is commonly believed, there has always been a ceiling on how old you could be and still get country airplay. This year, both George Strait and Reba McEntire have been working steadily to shatter that ceiling.
Take a look at the age of country legends when they earned their most recent top ten solo hit:
Eddy Arnold, 62
Kenny Rogers, 61*
Conway Twitty, 58
George Strait, 57
George Jones, 57**
Marty Robbins, 57
Willie Nelson, 56**
Ray Price, 56
Reba McEntire, 54
Waylon Jennings, 53
Merle Haggard, 52
Alan Jackson, 50
Charley Pride, 50
Johnny Cash, 49
Ernest Tubb, 49
Ronnie Milsap, 48
Loretta Lynn, 47
Webb Pierce, 46
Garth Brooks, 45
Dolly Parton, 43**
Hank Williams Jr., 41
Tammy Wynette, 40
* Kenny Rogers was the lead singer for his final top ten hit “Buy Me a Rose”, with harmony vocalists Billy Dean and Alison Krauss credited on the single
** George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton returned to the top ten in later years through duets with younger artists
It’s also worth noting that Alan Jackson, at 50, isn’t too far away from passing several legends on the list.
So George Strait remains in heavy rotation at the age of 57, outpacing all but three stars in country music history. Among the ladies, McEntire is a full seven years older than her nearest competitor Loretta Lynn was when she enjoyed her last top ten hit.
After Part 1 and Part 2 , we’re wading further into the sea of mediocrity.
The Worst Singles of the Decade, Part 3: #30-#21
Terri Clark, “Dirty Girl”
Double entendres are a lot more enjoyable when the naughty meaning is the real one.
Jamey Johnson, “The Dollar”
Real kids don’t talk like this.
Garth Brooks & Trisha Yearwood, “Love Will Always Win”
This treacly ballad is the nadir of Trisha’s career and one “It’s Midnight Cinderella” away from being Garth’s as well.
Darryl Worley, “Have You Forgotten?”
Featuring more straw men than a Wizard of Oz audition.
Clint Black, “I Raq and Roll”
“Have You Forgotten?” without all the nuance and subtlety.
Shania Twain and Billy Currington, “Party For Two”
Proof positive that spoken dialogue can ruin a song before it even begins.
Martina McBride, “God’s Will”
He was dressed as a bag of leaves? That’s his costume? Hey, at least she didn’t kill him off in the last verse.
Brooks & Dunn, “Play Something Country”
There are so many poorly written female characters in Brooks & Dunn songs, it’s hard to pick just one to represent them all. But I’ll give the nod to this one, simply because it has her howling the title to a melodic hook that’s a blatant rip-off of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Shut Up and Kiss Me.”
Jason Aldean, “Johnny Cash”
The “country star as song name” trend hasn’t yielded anything worthwhile, but at least “Tim McGraw” and “Kristofferson” have some tenuous connection to their titular song. “Johnny Cash” is just shameless name-dropping.
Gretchen Wilson, “Red Bird Fever”
In retrospect, this should’ve been a huge red flag that Wilson wasn’t built to last. My personal favorite moment of this St. Louis Cardinals shout-out comes in the chorus, when she sings “Let me get a big ‘Go Cards!’ from the Red Bird fans like me. Go Cards!” and the backup singers answer back, “Hell yeah!” because they couldn’t be bothered to change the “Redneck Woman” backing track.
It’s time for another iPod (or any other music player) check. Last time, I asked you to put your music device on shuffle and then tell us the first ten songs that you would recommend. This time, I want you to do the same thing, but then jot down your initial thoughts on the songs as your ten recommended songs play. Then share your informal thoughts in the comments.
I’ll play along too, but I’ll spare you the Christmas songs that will inevitably come up in my shuffle, which I’d heartily recommend if I wasn’t keenly aware that it’s still only September.
John Anderson, “I’d Love You Again”
Nice, sweet song from the rough voice guy who’s still able to sing a tender song with the best of them.
Todd Snider, “Alright Guy”
I love how Snider really seems to be pondering this question: “I’m an alright guy? Right? Right?”
Ashley Monroe, “Can’t Let Go”
Peppy…reminds me of a Garth Brooks type song.
Patty Loveless, “What’s A Broken Heart”
Melancholy…something Patty Loveless does the best.
Rodney Crowell, “Earthbound”
A celebration of life that doesn’t happen to be sappy.
Kathy Mattea, “Junkyard”
I can relate to this song. My motto has always been “Life’s depressing enough. Why would I want to watch things that would only contribute to the darkness?” That’s why I don’t watch dark films, though it so happens that I don’t have the same philosophy about music.
The Judds, “Flies on the Butter (You Can’t Go Home Again)”
There’s just something wistful about this song. Obviously, the theme, but also how it’s performed. Perhaps I’m just imagining it, because I’m wistfully wishing there was a duo on radio like The Judds today…probably why I love Joey + Rory
Trent Summar and the New Row Mob, “Louisville Nashville Line”
It’s just imperative to turn Trent Summar and the New Row Mob up when they come up on the iPod.
Vince Gill, “Don’t Pretend with Me”
I really like the guitar on this song. It’s cool. In reality, this whole box set is awesome.
There were two solo artists who changed the course of country music history in the nineties. The first was Garth Brooks, who ushered in the boom years with his mega-selling albums No Fences and Ropin’ the Wind. The second was Shania Twain, who permanently altered the female point of view in country music with her mega-selling albums The Woman in Me and Come On Over.
Twain’s debut album was decent enough, with some charming singles like “What Made You Say That” and the Gretchen Peters-penned “Dance With the One That Brought You” being among the highlights. But it was the combination of Twain’s pen and Mutt Lange’s production that made her a superstar. Throughout her career, she’s been a champion of mutual monogamy and carefree independence. She didn’t protest for women to be treated with equality and respect so much as write from the assumption that no other option had ever existed.
In truth, all three of her self-written albums are essential listening, but if none of the 60 million albums that Twain has sold are in your personal collection, here are some tracks to help you get started:
Ten Essential Tracks
“Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?”
From the 1995 album The Woman in Me
For all the heat Twain gets for being too pop, it’s hard to imagine anything this country getting played on even country radio today, let alone pop radio.
“Any Man of Mine”
From the 1995 album The Woman in Me
There were two songs from this album that essentially powered it toward becoming the best-selling female country album up until that point. I’ve always preferred this one over “I’m Outta Here!”
“No One Needs to Know”
From the 1995 album The Woman in Me
A charming record about falling in love but not letting anybody know about it yet. It was the fourth #1 single from the album.
“You’re Still the One”
From the 1997 album Come On Over
Her first big pop hit won her two country Grammys, and was her first of two songs to be nominated for overall Song of the Year.
“That Don’t Impress Me Much”
From the 1997 album Come On Over
Three men are summarily dismissed for putting their looks, their brains, and their car before showing love and affection to Shania Twain. Such men are unlikely to exist in the real world.
“Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”
From the 1997 album Come On Over
Arguably the most iconic single from Come On Over, it won her another Grammy and was a worldwide hit to boot, helping the album reach international sales in excess of 35 million.
“You’ve Got a Way”
From the 1997 album Come On Over
Shania unplugs with a quiet, acoustic love song.
From the 2002 album Up!
The title track from her epic fourth album is best heard in its country mix, with irresistible banjo and fiddle combos accompanying her frantic performance.
“Forever and For Always”
From the 2002 album Up!
Quite possibly her most beautiful ballad showcased how much she’d grown as a vocalist in the five years between Come On Over and Up!
From the 2002 album Up!
This was the biggest pop hit from this album overseas, and it features a riveting video that skewers the banality of her own celebrity as it questions society’s focus on materialism. That it was originally intended for her Christmas album is too cool for words.
Two Hidden Treasures
From the 1999 album Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida
Of all the places to find Twain’s finest vocal performance, its home is on the concept album for Aida. Just a piano and Twain singing her heart out.
From the 2002 album Up!
Sure, there are countless witty rave-ups and quite a few heartbreaking ballads that never made it to radio and remained album cuts. But I don’t think there’s a more enjoyable track among her lesser-known songs than this kiss-off anthem that has some “na na na’s” thrown in to boot.
This is a guest contribution by regular commenter, Michael Hawkins, who posts as Highwayman3.
The movies have the Oscars, the world of music has the Grammys, and that world subdivided into the country genre has the CM’s—the annual extravaganza that we fans look forward to every year. We see our favorites perform, win awards and lose with smiling gracious faces, or not [insert the inevitable Faith Hill reference here]. Everyone picks their favorites in each category as to who they’d like to win. But what about the show itself, the backdrop for which these prestigious awards are presented?
Recently, there have been posts at both The 9513 and on this site where people have been weighing in on their favorite moments from these awards. It occurred to me that none of those moments have happened in the last few years. The awards have slid into mediocrity, which is a fitting representation of the current state of country music. I understand producing these awards must be tough because you have to be everything to everyone, and acknowledge the traditional country, the Disney country, the old and new alike, and bring in people who don’t belong for the sake of ratings.
What’s wrong with the show?
The awards themselves seem like an after thought, filler in between all the endless performances. The main suspense isn’t who wins, but rather, how many performances the producers can fit in 3 hours. Also, it’s become an award show that is ashamed of its roots, barely mentioning who is inducted into the Hall of Fame. Any artist with the slightest sign of a wrinkle, regardless of their legend status is shunned and hidden in the audience next to seat fillers and radio contest winners. It’s an award show with self esteem issues, not cool enough to stand on its own. You can bet the main attraction used to promote this year’s show will be a non-country performer like Kid Rock, The Eagles of last year, and Jamie Foxx of two years ago.
What can be done?
Well, the first order of business would be for the Sommet Center to take out a one day restraining order from Miley Cyrus on November 11, 2009, or better yet, the whole Cyrus family, Billy Ray, Noah, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Yes, she’ll bring in ratings, but we’ve gotten along fine without her for 40 plus years.
The CMA’s need to take a cue from the Grammy awards, or even the American Idol finale. There are so many surprises, legends, moving moments, coming at you, left right and center, you don’t know what’s coming next, all you know is you’re in for the ride, you’re loving every second and you’re talking about it the next day. Last year, the biggest surprise was Shania Twain presenting Entertainer of the Year, which she has done at least 3 times before, and to those who keep up on country news, it was hardly a surprise at all.
What can possibly be done to make the night more entertaining?
How about taking a cue from this yearis Academy Awards and only announce a handful of performers, leaving the rest a mystery? Don’t tell us who and what everyone’s performing, which leaves more room for surprises. Also, like the Oscars, don’t announce who is presenting, and before each award have a mini-montage of past winners. Then at the end, the curtain opens and a surprise past winner comes out and shares insights on their winning experience. Instead of the otherwise cheesy dialogue or weird presenter pairings, it would make more sense if they just brought out Trisha Yearwood for Female Vocalist, Vince for Male, The Judds for Duo, Alabama forGroup, and hand it off to the winner like an Olympic torch or rite of passage. This way of thinking would work out great for the Entertainer of the Year category, in bringing out past winners, Roy Clark, and Barbara Mandrell, who also happen to be this year’s Hall of Fame inductees.
Speaking of the Hall of Fame, I would prefer it if it went back to how it used to be with a taped bio and artists performing a medley of hits. But even that is too much to ask. If they are going to cut it out entirely, the least they could do is show 3 separate 30-60 second bios of each of the inductees at different times as they are going to commercial and have them wave from the audience. Or, from the paragraph above, show a taped piece just before Barbara and Roy present Entertainer.
The most boring parts of the show are seeing full performances from all the mundane hits of the past year. Was it necessary for Darius Rucker to perform “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” last year when he wasn’t nominated? Yes, it’s necessary for the biggest hits to be performed, but does every top 5 hit of the past year have to be sung? Instead, encourage them to sing unique songs, like Alan Jackson in 2005 performing, “Wonderful Tonight”, songs you’ll actually remember more than 5 minutes after they are performed. Another idea, which the Grammys have down pat, is pairing people up. Think of the Al Green, Keith Urban, Justin Timberlake and Boys 2 Men grouping of earlier this year. For the CMA’s, this would be a perfect year to acknowledge the 20th anniversary of the hat act boom of 89. Why not bring out Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Garth Brooks, and Travis Tritt for a small medley?
Instead of each of the new artist nominees performing their full songs – do we really want to see Julianne Hough performing a full version of her song this year? - it would be great if they stole from the ACM’s all-star opener this year, and did the same thing with the 5 nominees. Lady Antebellum can be the ring leader like Brooks & Dunn were at the ACMs, and they all can perform a small portion of their hits. To wrap it up, Lady Antebellum can present the award. This will allow more time for the Collaboration and Video of the year awards to be back on the telecast.
If you ran the CMAs, thinking creatively but realistically, which special moments would you create that could go down in history and make country’s biggest night more fun to watch? How would you make George Strait’s performance less predictable? And how would you measure that Miley restraining order? In inches, feet, yards, or miles?
One of the side effects of the nineties boom was that every Nashville label started looking for young male acts that looked good in a Stetson and could sing with an accent.
The end result was that some solid talent was discovered a bit too early, before they’d fully refined themselves into artists. Tracy Byrd’s a great example of this. Only 25 years old when his first single went to radio, Byrd had been plucked from the Beaumont, Texas music scene that had groomed Mark Chesnutt.
Byrd’s hit material from the nineties was reflective of what the B-list hat acts recorded during that era, though his vocal charm helped him elevate middling songs from time to time. He also turned in a few gems, with his music getting far more consistent as he entered his thirties.
His last studio album, 2006′s Different Things, was excellent, but radio had already moved on to the new twentysomethings at that point, artists who will probably be making better music a decade from now and being overlooked for the new, new twentysomethings.
Ten Essential Tracks:
from the 1993 album Tracy Byrd
When surprisingly strong sales greeted the release of Byrd’s debut album, radio jumped on board. This catchy tune briefly knocked Garth’s “Ain’t Goin Down” out of the top spot, though Brooks would return to #1 a week later.
from the 1994 album No Ordinary Man
The line dance craze taken to its absolutely goofiest extreme. This is as representative of the early nineties as it gets.
“The Keeper of the Stars”
from the 1994 album No Ordinary Man
This romantic ballad was the surprise winner of Song of the Year at the 1995 ACM awards.
“Walkin’ to Jerusalem”
from the 1995 album Love Lessons
One of the craziest choruses to hit country radio sounds like a Mideast geography lesson taking a detour through southern America.
“Don’t Take Her She’s All I Got”
from the 1996 album Big Love
There’s no question that Tracy Byrd knows his country music history, and he effectively revived this Johnny Paycheck classic for the nineties.
“I Wanna Feel That Way Again”
from the 1998 album I’m From the Country
You can hear that Byrd is beginning to mature and settle in to his voice. He wouldn’t have been able to deliver this as well on earlier albums.
“Put Your Hand in Mine”
from the 1999 album It’s About Time
Another mature record that deals with a father and son relationship being strained by the tensions between father and mother.
“Just Let Me Be in Love”
from the 2001 album Ten Rounds
A warm and romantic love song with a Spanish flavor. By this record, he’s almost an entirely different singer than the guy who once sang “Watermelon Crawl.”
“Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo”
from the 2001 album Ten Rounds
Two decades after Shelly West spiked sales of the titular drink, Byrd topped the charts with this entertaining track.
from the 2006 album Different Things
A roving husband pays a far higher price in the end than the motel clerk charged him.
Two Hidden Treasures:
“Someone To Give My Love To”
from the 1993 album Tracy Byrd
Early evidence of Byrd’s affection for Johnny Paycheck surfaced with this cover featured on his first album. Despite only reaching #42, it helped stimulate sales of his debut set.
from the 2006 album Different Things
It’s a shame that Byrd’s success and talent peaked in different decades. Nearly every track on his 2006 album, including the title cut, would make radio sound a whole lot better.
The following is a guest contribution from Scott O’Brien.
“But someone killed tradition. And for that someone should hang.” –Larry Cordle & Larry Shell, “Murder on Music Row”
Dan Milliken’s recent post got me thinking: The country music I grew up with is nothing like the music on country radio today. If I turned on today’s country radio in 1988, I might not realize it was a country station and keep right on flipping. Back then, Randy Travis and Keith Whitley’s traditional twang ruled the airwaves. Today, they are dominated by the giggly teeny-bopper ditties of Taylor Swift and the boy band sounds of Rascal Flatts. Did they get away with murder on music row? Well, let’s start by briefly uncovering country’s traditional roots.
What is traditional country music? Is it simply anything from the past? That seems too broad; Shania Twain wasn’t traditional. Anything that isn’t pop? Maybe, but that is still a rather wide and subjective net. To me, traditional country music is honky tonk music. It heavily employs steel guitars, fiddles, and forlorn vocals. It moves at a slow pace. There are no drums or electric guitars. The songs typically deal with heavy topics such as heartbreak, cheating, or drinking, with a ballad here and there. In most cases, the goal is to induce pain. Not bad pain, but the therapeutic empathy that tugs your heart and helps you through your personal struggles. The patron saint of traditional country is Hank Williams. Hank’s first disciple is George Jones. Jones’ first disciple is Alan Jackson. The traditional template is supposed to help us decipher what is country and what is not. After all, what makes country music country if not fiddles and cheatin’ songs?
These days, traditionalists have a legitimate beef. When you turn on the radio, you don’t hear much steel guitar. Instead, you hear what might pass for 1990s pop, replete with fluffy repetitive lyrics, catchy drum beats, guitar riffs, and sex appeal. We aren’t preserving country music when the CMT Music Awards feature the B-52s and Def Leppard in lieu of John Anderson and Charley Pride. Was there a tribute to recently deceased traditionalist Vern Gosdin? No way. Do today’s artists “tear your heart out when they sing”? Not a chance. Is Keith Urban going to fill Conway Twitty’s shoes? Not a prayer. You know we are in trouble when pop-infused zipwire-flier Garth Brooks sounds more like Merle Haggard than today’s stars. Heck, just listen to Taylor Swift’s latest album. If that is country, I’ll kiss your ass. Nashville, we have a problem.
But let’s not go off the deep end just yet. Maybe traditionalists are thinking about things too narrowly. Country music is much more than Webb Pierce’s raw steel guitar-laden crooning. It always has been. Going back before Hank to the First Family of Country Music, the Carter family sound was an amalgam of several different sub-genres including Appalachian old-time, folk, and gospel. Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music, blended elements of jazz, gospel, old-time and blues to create some of the first country sounds. Marty Robbins played just about every musical style conceivable. Traditionalist hero Elvis Presley sang rockabilly. Johnny Cash had similar beginnings and even years later there was nothing “traditional” about his trademark up-tempo bass beat. Waylon Jennings’ music incorporated Buddy Holly’s rock-n-roll rhythm; he even wrote a song about how un-Hank-like his music was. Merle Haggard’s Bob Wills-inspired Bakersfield sound used amps and electric guitars. Even 1980s ACM Artist of the Decade Alabama shunned the steel guitar altogether and typically sang up-tempo, feel-good music. Yet these names are among the most venerated by traditionalists. What gives?
The problem is that traditionalists aren’t even sure what traditional country is. If it includes all artists who sold country records without crossing over to pop, the label is not very helpful. If it is strictly honky tonk, do we really want a bunch of Hank Williams clones? As great as he was, we surely do not. There has to be some updating – just ask Alan Jackson, who has innovated the traditionalist motif without sacrificing his authenticity. The genre has to evolve or it risks becoming boring and repetitive. Waylon Jennings understood this well (“It’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar/Where do we take it from here?”). Hank Williams’ own son realized it too after trying for years to replicate his father’s sound. His song “Young Country” directly attacked the tradition-or-else mentality: “We like some of the old stuff/We like some of the new/But we do our own choosing/We pick our own music/If you don’t mind, thank you.” He is right. Why draw lines? Strict uniformity is not desirable in any genre, particularly country, whose trademark is its diversity of influences, instruments, rhythms, voices, song topics, and stories.
So what should define today’s country music? It should pay tribute to the past by incorporating and updating its unique fusion of diverse influences. It doesn’t have to be strictly “traditional.” But country music needs to capture the sentiments of rural and working class America. It needs to cover painful topics like drinking and cheating. It needs to tell colorful stories. It needs to tear your heart out sometimes. It also needs to make you feel good sometimes. What it shouldn’t do is become pop music. When country is indistinguishable from Top 40, it loses its soul. Unfortunately, this has happened with the Keith Urbans, Rascal Flatts, and Taylor Swifts – all talented artists to be sure. But country artists? Not so much. Still, there are old warhorses like George Strait who carry the torch and newcomers like Jamey Johnson who give us hope that country’s soul will stay alive and well.
There is really no new way to pontificate on the fascinating longevity of George Strait’s career. Many, including myself, have speculated regarding the many possible reasons behind his staying power, but it is more than likely that many of the factors that we have already considered could be easily applied to other artists with lesser careers to show for it. Therefore, the consensus that can be agreed upon by most everyone is that George Strait is consistent. In the last three decades, without being loud or splashy in any way, Strait has consistently remained a vibrant country music artist, both on the charts and in concert sales. As a result, he is one of the most respected, if not intriguing, artists in the business.
On May 27, the Academy of Country Music honored George Strait as their Artist of the Decade in a two-hour CBS special. The show consisted of many of today’s biggest artists paying homage to Strait by singing the songs of the Man of Honor.
Unlike most tribute shows, this show moved along at a reasonably fast clip with few over-dramatic or slick moments to weigh it down, which was highly appropriate considering the man who was being honored that night.
The show opened with a rousing version of Strait’s Cajun flavored “Adalida” ably performed by Sugarland. Jennifer Nettle’s exaggerated drawl, while very different from Strait’s laid back vocals, gave the song energy and seemed to be a wise way to invigorate the crowd. Other energetic performances included a rocked-up version of “All My Exes Live in Texas” by Jack Ingram, which was fun but lacked the whimsical charm of Strait’s western swing flavored interpretation. Alan Jackson did a faithful steel laden cover of “The Fireman”, which is always sung at events such as these, though it’s certainly not one of Strait’s most interesting classics.
In probably one of the most disappointing performances of the night, Dierks Bentley, who is typically an intriguing vocalist, offered a weak and strained “Blue Clear Sky”, which, sadly, happens to be one of my favorite Strait songs. John Rich did not fare much better with his lifeless, uninspired rendering of one of Strait’s most revered hits, “Amarillo by Morning.” Instead of sounding like a professional, he more easily fit in with the Nashville Star contestants that he judged last summer who, incidentally, only sounded like decent karaoke singers at their best. In the not-as-bad-as-Rich-or-Bentley-but-still-not-very-memorable category was Brooks & Dunn. Their cover of “The Cowboy Rides Away” was fine, but it also lacked Strait’s easy charisma.
While most of this tribute show stuck rather closely to Strait’s own interpretations, there were a couple performances that tried to change things up a bit. As mentioned earlier, Jack Ingram added light rock to “All My Exes Live in Texas” and the other innovator was Jamie Foxx with a soulful cover of “You Look So Good in Love.” As someone who cannot fully appreciate R&B, it was difficult for me to get into his performance, though I could at least tell it was solid. Along with the R&B slant, Foxx changed Strait’s original regret filled monologue to an amusing “what does he got that I don’t?” diatribe. And we won’t even get into Foxx’s insistence that Strait’s singing is “sexy.”
As a diversion to the songs of George Strait, the past Artists of the Decade were honored throughout the show as well. Faith Hill did a respectable cover of Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough”, Martina McBride aptly covered Garth Brook’s “The Dance” and Montgomery Gentry rocked out with Alabama’s “Mountain Music.” One of the best performances of the evening, however, was Keith Urban’s tribute to Marty Robbins, which was in the form of a fabulous medley of three of Robbins’ beloved hits, including “Singing the Blues” (one of my favorite Robbins songs) “El Paso” and “A White Sport Coat (And A Pink Carnation)” (my all time favorite Robbins song). Urban’s performance proved that he is a master at singing country music, which only left me longing even more for hints of country sounds to show up on his most recent albums.
The person who was involved in the best performances of the show was Lee Ann Womack. With Jamey Johnson providing the speaking parts of “Give It Away”, Womack gave the female perspective of the song. The two voices melded perfectly together to reveal a possible duet partnership for the future that would surely be welcomed by many. In addition to her duet with Johnson, Womack sang a surprise song for Strait that was specifically written for the night called “Stand There And Sing.” While it would not necessarily be a standout song in a non-Strait centric environment, it was a moving tribute to George Strait’s simple charismatic entertaining style of “just standing there and singing”, which is something that he’s often criticized for doing.
As is supposedly the tradition of the Academy’s tribute shows, the previous Artist of the Decade passes the torch onto the newly anointed artist, which is what Garth Brooks did for George Strait. Brooks appropriately acknowledged the irony of this act, as he regaled the audience with the story of what inspired him to become a country music singer/entertainer, which just happened to include George Strait. After “the torch” was passed, George Strait showed us all why he so richly deserved the honor. He humbly thanked and praised the show’s participants for their contributions and for giving up their precious time to pay tribute to him. Then he sang “Ocean Front Property” and ended with “Troubadour” with the help of the entire cast of the show.
After a season of awards shows that have been disappointing at best, this tribute show was happily refreshing. Because they had great songs to work with from a man who can’t help but respected, the show was bound to be an easy success. Much like George Strait himself, the show was laid back without feeling stale. Everyone seemed genuinely honored to be there, even if some of their performances missed the mark here and there.
At times, I admittedly take George Strait for granted. I all too often forget what a huge fan of his I was in the nineties when I first entered the world of country music. Fortunately though, I spend more time in awe of his thirty year career and the grace with which he conducts himself. In “Troubadour” Strait concluded by singing, “I was a young troubadour, when I rode in on a song./And I’ll be an old troubadour when I’m gone“, which he followed by saying, “Not anytime soon, I hope.”