Posts Tagged ‘George Jones’

Country Music Hall of Fame Welcomes Garth Brooks, Connie Smith, and Hargus “Pig” Robbins

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

Garth Brooks, Connie Smith, and keyboardist Hargus “Pig” Robbins will join the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012.

Brooks is the top-selling country music artist in history.  At fifty, he is one of the youngest living inductees ever.

Smith is the fifth female artist to be inducted since 2008, when Emmylou Harris ended a nine year drought for female inductees.

Since playing on the George Jones classic “White Lightning” in 1957, Robbins has recorded with countless legends of country and rock music, including Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Alan Jackson, and Bob Dylan.

What’s your take on the 2012 inductees?  More importantly, who deserves to join them in 2013?

We’ll run a list of our picks for the next round. Share your suggestions in the comments!

100 Greatest Men: #64. Jerry Reed

Sunday, March 4th, 2012

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

A first class singer, songwriter, and musician, Jerry Reed’s talents ran far deeper than his tongue-in-cheek persona might have indicated.

Born and raised in Georgia, Reed played guitar from an early age. Music brought him comfort and structure during a childhood of instability. By the time he was out of high school, he was already signed to Capitol Records.   Though he released several singles over the next few years, it was his songwriting and guitar playing that first earned him notice.

Throughout the late fifties and the sixties, his songs were recorded by Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee, and others.  He also became an in-demand session guitarist, with a career highlight being the sessions he played with Presley, who feel in love with Reed when he heard his 1967 single, “Guitar Man.”

A strong working relationship with Chet Atkins led to a contract with RCA and further raised Reed’s profile.  By the late sixties, Reed was getting critical notice for his own records.   He had his big breakthrough in 1970, when “Amos Moses” became a gold-selling pop and country hit.   In 1971, ‘When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” became his first #1 country single and another big pop hit.

Throughout the seventies, Reed matched popular singles and albums with high profile media exposure.  He was a regular on Glen Campbell’s television show, and he appeared in several films.   His greatest notoriety came as Cledus Snow in the wildly popular Smokey and the Bandit film series.   “East Bound and Down” was recorded for the soundtrack of the first film, and became one of his biggest hits.

Reed’s recording career had a second wind when he released the 1982 album The Man with the Golden Thumb.   Often rated as his strongest studio album, it featured the classic hit “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft).”  Reed quickly followed with the hit album, The Bird.  The title track had him mimicking both George Jones and Willie Nelson, and the album also featured a hit cover of the Creedence Clearwater Revival song, “Down on the Corner.”

The nineties brought a fun collaboration with Mel Tillis, Bobby Bare, and Waylon Jennings, a live album dubbed Old Dogs.   Reed also starred as the coach in the box office smash, The Waterboy.    Illness sidelined him as he aged, and he passed away in 2008 due to complications caused by emphyzema.

Essential Singles:

  • Guitar Man, 1967
  • Amos Moses, 1970
  • When You’re Hot, You’re Hot, 1971
  • Lord, Mr. Ford, 1973
  • East Bound and Down, 1977
  • She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft), 1982

Essential Albums:

  • The Unbelievable Guitar and Voice of Jerry Reed, 1967
  • Nashville Underground, 1968
  • Me & Chet (with Chet Atkins), 1972
  • Lord Mr. Ford, 1973
  • The Man with the Golden Thumb, 1982

Next: #63. Clint Black

Previous: #65. Asleep at the Wheel

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

100 Greatest Men: #71. Johnny Paycheck

Friday, February 24th, 2012

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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.

Essential Singles:

  • Motel Time Again, 1966
  • She’s All I Got, 1971
  • Someone to Give My Love To, 1972
  • Slide Off Your Satin Sheets, 1977
  • Take This Job and Shove It, 1977
  • Friend, Lover, Wife, 1978

Essential Albums:

  • The Lovin’ Machine, 1966
  • She’s All I Got, 1971
  • 11 Months and 29 Days, 1976
  • Slide Off Your Satin Sheets, 1977
  • Mr. Hag Told My Story, 1981
  • Modern Times, 1987

Next: #70. Ferlin Husky

Previous: #72. Vern Gosdin

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

Retro Single Review: George Strait, “The Chair”

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

1985 | Peak: #1

Want to separate the real deals from the posers?

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.

That’s the hallmark of a great storyteller.

Written by Hank Cochran and Dean Dillon

Grade: A

Next: You’re Something Special to Me

Previous: The Fireman

Album Review: Joe Nichols, It’s All Good

Monday, November 21st, 2011

Joe Nichols
It’s All Good

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.

100 Greatest Men: #78. Brad Paisley

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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.”

Essential Singles:

  • 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
  • Letter to Me, 2007
  • Waitin’ On a Woman, 2008

Essential Albums:

  • Mud On the Tires, 2003
  • Time Well Wasted, 2005
  • 5th Gear, 2007
  • American Saturday Night, 2009

Next: ?

Previous: #79. Hank Locklin

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

Album Review: LeAnn Rimes, Lady and Gentlemen

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

LeAnn Rimes

Lady and Gentlemen

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.

Retro Single Review: Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton, “Just Someone I Used to Know”

Sunday, August 21st, 2011

1969 | Peak: #5

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.

Written by Jack Clement

Grade: A-

Listen: Just Someone I Used to Know

 

 

Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Sara Evans

Sunday, August 7th, 2011

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

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

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

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

#25

“A Little Bit Stronger”

Stronger, 2011

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

#24

“New Hometown”

Real Fine Place, 2005

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

#23

“Perfect”

Restless, 2003

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

#22

“Momma’s Night Out” 

Real Fine Place, 2005

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

#21

“Cupid”

No Place That Far, 1999

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

#20

“Restless”

Restless, 2003

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

#19

“Low”

Billy: The Early Years (soundtrack), 2008

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

#18

“I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

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

#17

“Fool, I’m a Woman”

No Place That Far, 1999

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

#16

“A Real Fine Place to Start”

Real Fine Place, 2005

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

#15

“Why Should I Care”

Born to Fly, 2000

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

#14

“Imagine That”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

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

#13

“Bible Song”

Real Fine Place, 2005

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

#12

“Rockin’ Horse”

Restless, 2003

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

#11

“As If”

Greatest Hits, 2007

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

#10

“What That Drink Cost Me”

Stronger, 2011

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

#9

“If You Ever Want My Lovin’”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

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

#8

“Unopened”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

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

#7

“No Place That Far”

No Place That Far, 1999

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

#6

“I Learned That from You”

Born to Fly, 2000

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

#5

“Coalmine”

Real Fine Place, 2005

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

#4

“Three Chords and the Truth”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

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

#3

“Suds In the Bucket”

Restless, 2003

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

#2

“Cheatin’”

Real Fine Place, 2005

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

#1

“Born to Fly”

Born to Fly, 2000

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

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

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

Retro Single Reviews: An Introduction

Monday, June 20th, 2011

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.

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