For casual fans of country music, Johnny Paycheck was a one-hit wonder who spent a good chunk of his life in jail. For those who know better, he was the greatest of the Outlaw singers and the definitive honky-tonk voice of his time.
Born Donald Lytle in Ohio, he performed from age nine, and after a stint in the Navy, he pursued music full-time. He quickly became known as a songwriter of high caliber and an in-demand tenor singer. He toured with Ray Price and Willie Nelson, and was a major influence on George Jones as he was developing his signature style.
After scoring a minor hit under the name Danny Young, he adopted the stage name Johnny Paycheck. Recording for Little Darlin’ in the late sixties, he made a series of crucial, hardcore country albums that stood in sharp contrast to the slicker Nashville sound recordings of the day. While this wasn’t his most commercially successful work, the Little Darlin’ sessions are arguably the most significant traditional country recordings of the sixties, and laid the groundwork for the Outlaw movement that would follow the next decade.
Switching over to Epic, Paycheck found success at both radio and retail throughout the seventies. While not a chart-topper, he regularly sent records to the top forty. In the latter half of the decade, he broke through in a huge way, thanks to his signature song and only #1 hit: “Take This Job and Shove it.” It became a working man’s anthem, and much like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”, its anthemic chorus led people to miss the actual content of the verses, as Paycheck never actually says the title to his boss. It’s the inner rage of a man trapped at a job he’d like to quit.
Paycheck recorded a few more great albums and a handful of hit singles until 1985, when he was convicted of shooting and killing a man in a bar. The subsequent appeals process distracted from his music, and he ended up serving a 22-month jail term. He was later pardoned by the governor of Ohio.
Though he performed throughout the nineties, chronic illness limited his appearances by the turn of the century. Paycheck died in 2003, and his friend and colleague George Jones absorbed the costs of his funeral and burial.
Ask them to sing “The Chair.” There isn’t a hat act out there who could measure up to Strait’s delivery of this song.
It may not have the emotional heft of George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” or Porter Wagoner’s “Green, Green Grass of Home,” but Strait’s delivery shares an important commonality with those classics. The song remains fresh and interesting even after you know the twist at the end.
It’s impossible to review an album titled It’s All Good without indulging in a few witty remarks. Such a title tends to beg the question of whether or not the album really is “all good.” The vocals are all good, to be sure. Joe Nichols has already proven himself to be one of mainstream country music’s best male vocalists, and on his newest effort, his performances do not disappoint. The production, likewise, is consistently solid. Producers Mark Wright and Buddy Cannon back Nichols with arrangements that sound easily accessible and radio-friendly, while laced with traditional country trimmings of fiddle and steel, and it certainly is enjoyable to hear country music that is sonically recognizable as such.
For all its positive traits, however, the album at times falls into a rut of predictability, leaning on safely inoffensive radio-ready themes that have grown stale from overuse. In that regard, lead single “Take It Off” turns out to be an accurate preview of the album it foreshadowed. The single was released in May, just early enough to capitalize on country radio’s annual summer song mania, albeit with limited success, as the song topped out at #25 on the charts. It’s a fun enough tune, but it’s too forgettable, not to mention interchangeable with any other summer song, to be worth coming back to all year round. Likewise, the country boy hokum of “This Ole Boy” plays like a rote run-of-the-mill Peach Pickers tune that wasn’t particularly interesting when Craig Morgan sang it either, while the Blake Shelton-esque “The More I Look” is nothing more than disposable radio fodder.
Though the quality of the song material is inconsistent, Nichols’ performances often elevate it to a point. While the imagery of “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” is nothing to write home about, Nichols lifts the song to a higher level with his warm and expressive delivery, while a fiddle in the background lends an almost haunting quality to the track. With the title track, Nichols imbues his own distinct personality into a lyric about life’s simple pleasures, while the laid-back traditional country arrangement finishes things off nicely.
In spite of all its middling material, the album’s best moments simply shine. “Somebody’s Mama” offers a novel spin on the timeless theme of “the one that got away,” as the narrator is having a tattoo of his ex-lover’s name covered, and pondering over where she might have ended up in life, assuming that “She’s probably somebody’s mama by now.” The bittersweet lyric fully functions on par with the steel-laden arrangement as well as Nichols’ smooth vocal delivery. The title track “Never Gonna Get Enough” shows a loose and laid-back style along with lyrical imagery that recalls George Jones “Tennessee Whiskey,” while “She’s Just Like That” works well as a simple ode to a woman who is beautiful inside and out.
The album’s finest tracks offer a glimpse of what could have been had the overall caliber of song material been a few degree higher. In the end, we’re left with an album that sounds good, but that could have been better. Of course, the spot-on vocals and solid traditional-leaning arrangements make for an album that is sonically pleasant throughout, with not a single moment that sounds fingernails-on-chalkboard awful. While there are still plenty of listeners who will find such an effort wholly satisfactory, those who prefer country music with a little extra meat to it would likely prefer to cherry-pick it instead. As a whole, It’s All Good plays like a musical piece of candy – mostly enjoyable, but largely insubstantial. Good it is, but great it isn’t.
A musician since receiving his first guitar at age eight, Brad Paisley emerged in the late nineties and became the most consistently successful radio artist in the decade that followed.
Paisley’s career began in earnest when he penned his first song at age twelve, “Born On Christmas Day.” His junior high principal invited him to perform at a local function. He was spotted by a representative of Jamboree USA, and after one performance, he was invited to join the cast.
Over the next eight years, Paisley performed in West Virginia, opening up for major country acts when they visited the area. After completing a two year stint at Belmont University in Nashville, he was immediately signed to a publishing deal with EMI. After penning hits for David Kersh and David Ball, he signed with Arista Records.
His debut album, Who Needs Pictures, featured two top #1 hits. The first one, “He Didn’t Have to Be”, began a string of award show nominations that continues through this day. As the 2000s progressed, he reaped awards for his collaborations with Alison Krauss, Keith Urban, Dolly Parton, Little Jimmy Dickens, and George Jones.
Paisley was the first male artist since Earl Thomas Conley to score ten consecutive #1 hits on the Billboard charts. His innovative videos incorporated appearances from Hollywood television stars, often satirizing their own public images to humorous effect. At the peak of his popularity, Paisley showcased his Grammy-winning instrumental skills. With Play, he became the first mainstream country artist since Steve Wariner to release a largely instrumental album.
Now a touring powerhouse, Paisley collected his first Entertainer trophy from the CMA in 2010, joining shelves full of awards for Male Vocalist, Single, Album, Music Video, and Musical Event from all three major industry organizations. Most recently, he has scored #1 hits collaborating with Alabama and then Carrie Underwood. The latter collaboration, “Remind Me”, became his fourth platinum-selling digital single, following “Whiskey Lullaby”, “She’s Everything”, and “Then.”
He Didn’t Have to Be, 1999
I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song), 2002
Whiskey Lullaby (with Alison Krauss), 2004
When I Get Where I’m Going (with Dolly Parton), 2005
A new covers album from LeAnn Rimes would likely draw comparisons to her 1999 self-titled effort, which found her covering the likes of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. But this time, there’s a twist: All of the songs she’s covering were originally recorded by male artists. Thus, Rimes is re-interpreting them in a female perspective.
And while 1999′s LeAnn Rimes album might have given you a feeling that you were listening to really good karaoke singer, as her versions seldom strayed far from the originals, Rimes’ new collection Lady and Gentlemen finds her taking substantial liberties with these classic hits. She even alters lyrics on Waylon Jennings’ “Good Hearted Woman” and “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” (re-titled as “The Only Mama That’ll Walk the Line”). The songs are given modern, yet reverent, production arrangements, with Rimes adding her own personal style to each one, resulting in a uniquely creative effort.
Besides the obviously strong song material, what really makes Lady and Gentlemen a keeper is the fact that, although she covers everyone from Jennings to Jones to Haggard, the project remains first and foremost a LeAnn Rimes album. She sounds entirely in her element – After all, she grew up listening to these songs – and the result is a strong set of performances that sound natural, sincere, and unaffected.
Rimes and her co-producers Vince Gill and Darrell Brown craft arrangements that sound simultaneously vintage and modern, never treating the songs as museum pieces. The albums kicks off with Rimes’ cover of John Anderson’s “Swingin,” which was released as the project’s first single last year. Though it barely made a ripple on the charts, it easily ranked as one of the best singles of the year.
While everything about the original Anderson recording screamed “eighties,” LeAnn speeds up the tempo, and transforms the über-cheesy hit into a modern-day jam session. In listening to Rimes’ vocal delivery, you’d think she chugged down a pot of espresso before heading into the recording studio. Like an auctioneer at the county fair, Rimes calls out the verses in rapid-fire succession, while the band furiously plucks away behind her.
The better part of the album finds Rimes backed with simple acoustic and steel guitar-driven arrangements, such as on the Freddy Fender cover “Wasted Days and Wasted Night” – worth hearing for her Spanish accent alone. She utilizes a similar sonic approach on Merle Haggard’s “I Can’t Be Myself,” notable also for a vocal that sounds deeply plaintive, while also casting a feminine tone over the classic lyric. While her version of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons” carries a deep retro vibe, she adds an extra layer of sass to the lyric, which makes the song one of the album’s most interesting tracks.
She deviates from the vintage approach with her cover of Vince Gill’s “When I Call Your Name,” and instead puts a blue-eyed country soul spin on the nineties hit. Such an approach accents the deep bluesy tone in her voice, but the unnecessary addition of a gospel choir distracts from the raw emotion that came through in Gill’s original recording. Though interesting, her take on “When I Call Your Name” is less satisfying than many of the album’s other tracks.
Perhaps the song that gives her the biggest shoes to fill is the classic Bobby Braddock/ Curly Putman composition “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a hit for George Jones in 1980, and widely regarded as the greatest country song of all time. Appropriately, Rimes and Gill’s approach places the classic lyric front and center, with no superfluous bells or whistles. Rimes is backed by little more than an acoustic guitar as she recounts the dark tale of a man who loved his woman until the very end, even when his love was no longer requited. She gives a remarkably moving performance of the familiar ballad, even when delivering the spoken-word portion. Vince Gill adds his distinctive harmony touch to the track, and the result sounds absolutely haunting, making “He Stopped Loving Her Today” a strong contender for being the album’s best track.
The album closes with the original songs “Crazy Women” and “Give,” both of which have seen release as singles. “Crazy Women” sounds like something out of a Broadway musical (or a Laura Bell Bundy album, for that matter), and Rimes deftly pulls it off with a broadly entertaining performance of the wickedly snarky tune. Current single “Give” returns Rimes to a fully modern pop-country style. While the philosophical song – a call for proactivity and benevolence in the world – is a strong composition, the musical styling is an awkward fit for an album that is largely retro in style. It’s a good song – It just sounds like it belongs on a different album.
As a special treat for her fans, Rimes offers a re-recorded version of her classic 1996 debut single “Blue,” commemorating the fifteen-year anniversary of the song’s release. The new version sounds even more traditional than the original, which is saying a lot, while also displaying Rimes’ growth as a vocalist and lyrical interpreter. She gives a performance with more restraint than the original, connecting with the underlying emotions on an even deeper level than before, while the simpler, twangier arrangement highlights the timeless nature of the Bill Mack composition. It’s impressive to note the ease with which “Blue” fits in among all these revered classics. As one who’s known and loved the song “Blue” for years, I do not say this lightly: The new version of “Blue” rivals the original.
A binding thread running throughout the set is the palpable reverence Rimes displays for these songs, which makes Lady and Gentlemen one of the most intriguing and wholly satisfying releases of 2011, and of Rimes’ own career output. It all comes together so well that the project’s success seem perfectly natural. LeAnn Rimes is a great singer, and these are great songs, so in her tackling these timeless tunes, it logically follows that a great album would result.
Originally a hit for George Jones as “A Girl I Used to Know”, their effective cover gave Porter & Dolly their second top five hit.
The harmonies are beautiful, and the steel guitar works wonders. You can hear Parton growing as a vocalist during the moments that Wagoner gets out of the way, and when Parton takes a back seat, it’s clear that Wagoner is in his singing prime.
The song’s become a standard, so it feels odd to nitpick over its flaws. But I have to say that what holds this record back is the questionable horn section. Thankfully, they only disrupt the song at its opening and its closing.
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.
“A Little Bit Stronger”
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.
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.”
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.
“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
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!”
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.
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.
“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.
“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!
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“What That Drink Cost Me”
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“Suds In the Bucket”
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.
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.
“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.
Despite some amazing album artists – a Willie Nelson here, an Emmylou Harris there – country music has always been a singles format. Over the past seven years, we’ve charted the development of some artists from the very beginning, like Lady Antebellum and Zac Brown Band, just by reviewing their singles.
With Retro Single Reviews, we’re going to go back in time to tell the story of the genre’s biggest artists from the very beginning, by reviewing all of their singles in chronological order.
Here’s how it works: At any given time, we’ll be working our way through the catalog of five artists. When we complete one of them, we’ll add a new one to the rotation.
The first five artists are:
Alan Jackson (1989-present)
He began his career on Arista Records in 1989, recording with them through 2010. This year, he is prepping his first album on his own label.
Tim McGraw (1992-present)
In his twentieth year on the charts, McGraw is also prepping to leave his longtime label, which is making more money off of hits collections these days than anything else.
Dolly Parton (1967-present)
The most successful female singer-songwriter in country music history has duets with everyone from Porter Wagoner to Ladysmith Black Mambazo in her catalog of singles.
George Strait (1981-present)
With three decades of singles already under his belt, he’s had more #1 hits than any other country artist, and trails only Eddy Arnold and George Jones among all-time hitmakers.
Shania Twain (1993-present)
The top selling female country artist of all time, she’s just released her first new music in six years. Her career includes several singles that were released only in international markets.
At first, they were the very embodiment of a valid reason to suspect the credentials of TV singing contest winners. But over time, they became one of the most thought-provoking and substantial country music bands.
Sawyer Brown began as the backing band for Don King, who had a handful of minor country hits in the late seventies and early eighties. When King stopped touring in 1981, the band decided to strike out on their own. The original lineup of Mark Miller, Bobby Randall, Joe Smyth, Gregg Hubbard, and Jim Scholten named themselves Sawyer Brown after the Nashville street where they often rehearsed.
The band quickly earned a reputation on the road, honing the live act that would keep them in the green during all of their ups and downs at country radio. In 1983, they auditioned for the first season of Star Search, where they were th winning act, securing a $100,000 prize which led to a contract with Capitol Records.
They were a hit from the start, with a handful of big singles from their first two albums, including “Step That Step” and “Betty’s Bein’ Bad.” As the titles indicate, they built their early career on goofy novelty hits, and were known for their outlandish outfits and campy dance moves. Even though they won the CMA Horizon Award in 1985, they weren’t taken terribly seriously by the country music industry.
Their road business never wavered, but as the new traditionalist movement went into full swing, radio airplay was erratic. After “Bad” hit #5 in 1985, the band enjoyed only two more top ten hits in the following five years, one of which was a high-energy cover of the George Jones classic, “The Race is On.” Original guitarist Randall left the band, replaced by Duncan Cameron.
Then, in one of the most surprising second acts in country music history, they resurfaced as a major player in the most competitive era the genre has ever seen, and they did it with a string of serious, thought-provoking songs like “The Walk”, which traced a father-son relationship through time; “Cafe on the Corner”, which captured the stories of several small-towners hard hit by the early nineties recession; and “All These Years”, a harrowing look at a faltering marriage that just might be saved by an act of infidelity.
The personality was there too, with “Some Girls Do” and “Thank God For You” recapturing the energy of their early hits without the accompanying silliness. For most of the decade, the band would remain hitmakers, finally winning a Vocal Group award from the ACM in 1997, and regularly reaching the upper heights of the charts with well-picked covers and strong self-written material.
Their most recent studio album, Mission Temple Fireworks Stand, was among the most critically acclaimed of their career, and spawned their last top forty hit, “They Don’t Understand.” The set was followed in 2008 with a Christmas collection, Rejoice. Their touring schedule remains hectic, with the band regularly playing venues and fairs across the country every summer and fall.
Four generous hits collections were released in 2010, each one chronicling the entire career of a contemporary country music star. Individually, each double-disc set serve as the most expansive and thorough compilation for each artist. Taken together, they tell the story of country music over the last twenty years.
Alan Jackson 34 Number Ones
In the late eighties, Randy Travis did something that no other country star had done before. He became the top-selling country artist by a wide margin without making any musical concessions to pop or rock. In doing so, he tore up the old playbook. Suddenly, you could be a multi-platinum country artists without the added benefit of top 40 radio or accolades from the rock and roll press.
Thus began contemporary country music, the new paradigm that reached its commercial peak in the nineties, but has never come close to receding to its earlier status as a niche genre. A crop of young stars surfaced in 1989 and 1990, each one of them staking a claim to be the Haggard, the Jones, the Willie, the Waylon of their generation. Out of all of them, none struck a more perfect balance between artistic credibility and commercial viability than Alan Jackson.
Simply put, he is the most significant singer and songwriter of the past quarter century. So it’s no surprise that out of all of the country stars who’ve compiled #1 hit collections, Jackson’s set is the best, both in terms of overall quality and effectiveness in summing up an entire career.
Fact is, radio’s played nearly everything Jackson’s sent their way, and he’s demonstrated remarkably good judgment over the past twenty years. The highest of the high points – “Here in the Real World”, “Don’t Rock the Jukebox”, “Chattahoochee”, “Gone Country”, “Where Were You”, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” – aren’t just great records from their time period. They’re accurate representations as well, little time capsules that show Jackson as being centrally relevant to the genre while he was also making great music.
Today, with critical acclaim and commercial success becoming increasingly divergent pathways, 34 Number Ones serves as a powerful reminder that one need not sacrifice quality for radio airplay. Of the new tracks, Jackson’s cover of “Ring of Fire” doesn’t quite measure up, It’s certainly a competent reading, but Jackson’s already a legend in his own right. Just listen to “As She’s Walking Away”, the duet with Zac Brown Band that serves at the set’s bonus 35th number one. His mere presence elevates the track into greatness.
Tim McGraw Number One Hits
Jackson’s ascent into superstardom came at the peak of the new traditionalist movement. Tim McGraw got in just under the buzzer, breaking through a year before Shania Twain shifted the course of country music to a distinctively more pop sound. He’s since been able to maintain stardom by going with the flow of these changes.
At his best, few have been better than Tim McGraw, but Number One Hits documents his bookend years as a follower of trends. It’s the songs on either end of his hit run than are the weakest. Whereas Jackson has flirted with banality once in a while, McGraw has openly embraced it. He became a mega-star by alternating shoehorning the five-hankie weepfest “Don’t Take the Girl” between novelty songs like “Indian Outlaw” and “Down on the Farm”, all of which reek of the hat act herd mentality that was heading out of style in 1994.
But McGraw used his clout from those early hits to get access to better material, and his albums soon demonstrated a song sense that was unrivaled among the other new acts of the time, most of whom quickly faded away as pop ascended in the genre. The best of his biggest singles came over the course of the next decade. Classics like “Just to See You Smile”, “Please Remember Me”, “Angry all the Time” and “Live Like You Were Dying” were among the best songs on the radio.
For a while there, he could get just about anything into the top fifteen, but this collection focuses only on the chart-toppers. So instead of fantastic gems like “Can’t Be Really Gone”, “One of These Days”, “Red Ragtop”, and “If You’re Reading This”, this set features quite a bit of forgettable fare that hasn’t aged well. They may have topped the charts, but that doesn’t make “Not a Moment Too Soon”, “She Never Lets it Go to Your Heart”, and the particularly abysmal “Southern Voice” worthy of inclusion in a best-of set.
If they were able to suspend the concept to include a questionable dance remix of the #8 chart hit “Indian Outlaw” and the mediocre new hit “Felt Good on My Lips”, they might as well have just been more generous with the track listing and released The Very Best of Tim McGraw. His music has been far more compelling than this collection shows.
Dixie Chicks The Essential Dixie Chicks
The explosive crossover success of Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, and Faith Hill was in full swing in 1998, which left traditionalists hungering for a superstar alternative. In waltzed the Dixie Chicks, with a combination of musical credibility, traditional roots, and youthful appeal that instantly made them the darlings of the format. Over the course of two albums – 1998′s Wide Open Spaces and 1999′s Fly – they dominated radio, retail and the awards circuit.
Tracks from those two albums combine for fourteen of the thirty tracks of The Essential Dixie Chicks. All of the biggest hits are here, but chart success wasn’t the only determination for inclusion. Thank God for that, as less impressive top ten hits like “Cold Day in July” and “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” are left off, with the far more compelling “Heartbreak Town” and “Sin Wagon” in their place.
As good as their first two albums were, it was the 2002 masterpiece Home that truly solidified them as artists for the ages. Released at the height of O Brother mania, the timing couldn’t have been better for this acoustic album. “Long Time Gone”, “Landslide”, and “Travelin’ Soldier” all went top two, and the album swept the country categories at the 2003 Grammy Awards.
And then, the bottom fell out. Poorly chosen words about the president quickly overshadowed Home, and the princesses of country radio suddenly became pariahs, taking the burgeoning roots movement down with them. Radio slamming its door shut is what makes a hit-centered Chicks compilation impossible, and Essential Dixie Chicks wisely chooses to give equal representation to Home and its follow-up, the California country Taking the Long Way.
An excellent job is done of selecting the best album cuts from both collections, an especially difficult task with the latter album. Sure, it won five Grammys and sold well, but the platinum single “Not Ready to Make Nice” was the only real hit. Thankfully, we’re treated to gems like “Top of the World” and “Truth No. 2″ from Home and “The Long Way Around”, “Easy Silence,” and “Lubbock or Leave It” from Taking the Long Way.
And while a case could be made for some great tracks left off – “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”, “More Love”, and “Voice Inside My Head” come to mind – everything that’s here is essential listening. Then again, the Chicks could have randomly picked any 30 songs from the four albums represented here and still ended up with a great collection of music, so high has their standard of excellence been all along. How many other superstar country artists could do the same?
Brad Paisley Hits Alive
If the Dixie Chicks best represent the last gasp of lofty aspiration in mainstream country music over the past twelve years, Brad Paisley best represents the mediocrity the genre was willing to settle for. Rising to fame around the same time as the Chicks, Paisley was similarly touted as a traditional savior for the increasingly pop-influenced genre.
And for more than ten years, he’s lived up to the traditionalist part, rarely flirting with crossover sounds. Much like Alan Jackson, Paisley’s sound hasn’t changed much over time. But unlike Jackson, Paisley’s point of view hasn’t changed much either. He’s been releasing antiseptic, mostly dull radio fodder for most of his career, getting regular radio play with an endless stream of interchangeable love songs and party anthems.
Hits Alive attempts to assess his work to date, and it takes an odd approach. A disc of studio hits is paired with a disc of live recordings of his hits. Figuring out the guiding principle in song selection is near impossible. Some of his signature hits – “I’m Gonna Miss Her”, “Letter to Me”, “Waitin’ on a Woman” – appear only in live form. Songs that practically beg to be livened up, like “Ticks”, “The World”, and “Celebrity” – are only here in their studio incarnations. Bizarrely, “Alcohol” and “Mud on the Tires”, are presented in both forms.
The double dipping means early hits like “Who Needs Pictures”, “Wrapped Around”, “Two People Fell in Love”, and “I Wish You’d Stay” are omitted entirely. That’s a shame, because they’re all better than his string of condescending and slightly misogynist love songs that do make the cut, the worst offenders being “The World” and the jaw-dropping “Little Moments”, the latter providing a list of endearing traits that would be insulting if he was singing about his child, let alone his partner.
Thankfully, many of his best moments are included, most notably “Whiskey Lullaby” and “When I Get Where I’m Going”, two hits that have gone on to become genre standards in the years since their release. Plus, the live disc brings some unexpected treats. “Time Warp” showcases his stunning instrumental talent, while the hits “Water” and “American Saturday Night” truly do come alive on stage, making them sound better here than they did on the radio.
Of the four collections, Paisley’s may be the least impressive, but it’s still a decent representation of one of country music’s last superstars, and it speaks volumes about the creative holding pattern that still paralyzes the genre. Unless the spiritual successors to Alan Jackson or the Dixie Chicks come along, Paisley’s might be as good as it’s gonna get on country radio.