Tag Archives: George Strait

Retro Single Reviews: George Strait, 1990-1991

As the nineties began, George Strait was the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year, a title noted on the belt buckle he wore on the cover of Livin’ it Up.

Around this time, Billboard switched to monitoring radio stations in real time, revealing just how often songs were really being played.  So while all of his eighties #1 singles spent only a week at the top, all four of the #1 singles listed here spent multiple weeks in the penthouse, including two five-week runs at the top.

   George Strait Love Without End Amen

“Love Without End, Amen”
1990
Peak: #1

Listen

One of Strait’s most enduring hits, “Love Without End, Amen” foreshadowed the understated religiousness of future hits like “I Saw God Today.” A classic three act story song, it makes its point subtly and endearingly.

Written by Aaron Barker

Grade: A

George Strait Drinking Champagne

“Drinking Champagne”
1990
Peak: #4

Listen

A minor hit for Cal Smith in 1968, Strait continues his tradition of reviving the country songs that inspired his style. It’s easy to see how this flew over the heads of many listeners when Smith first released it, but Strait’s smooth delivery helped get it some wider exposure 22 years later.

Written by Bill Mack

Grade: B+

George Strait Livin' it Up

“I’ve Come to Expect it From You”
1990
Peak: #1

Listen

Nervy, nervous and a little unnerving, there’s a tension present here that is a bit jarring from the genre’s Sinatra. Sometimes bitter is just better, making this one of Strait’s most compelling singles to date.

Written by Buddy Cannon and Dean Dillon

Grade: A

George Strait If I Know Me

“If I Know Me”
1991
Peak: #1

Listen

Ever imagine what K.T. Oslin’s “Hold Me” would’ve sounded like if it had the same theme with a traditional song structure? Here’s your answer. It still sounds great today, though a bit more punch in the production would’ve helped a bit.

Written by Pam Belford and Dean Dillon

Grade: A-

George Strait You Know Me Better Than That

“You Know Me Better Than That”
1991
Peak: #1

Listen

Western swing and wily wit, Strait shines on this comedic number. He plays it just straight enough to keep it on the right side of the line between good humor and silliness, never losing the self-awareness necessary to make it work.

Written by Anna Lisa Graham and Tony Haselden

Grade: A

George Strait The Chill of An Early Fall

“The Chill of an Early Fall”
1991
Peak: #3

Listen

As exciting as the prospect of George Strait singing a Gretchen Peters song might seem, she was definitely still honing her craft on this single that was co-written by Green Daniel. The concept is solid, and the imagery is vivid, but the parallels between the changing of the seasons and the impending changing of lovers aren’t drawn sharply enough.

Written by Green Daniel and Gretchen Peters

Grade: B-

Next: 1992-1993

Previous: “Overnight Success”

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Concert Review: George Strait and Martina McBride

GeorgeStraitConcertPicThis review of George Strait’s final Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo concert was originally published on CultureMap Houston.

It was 30 years ago that the Texas rancher and country music newcomer received a last-minute call to make his Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo debut, replacing the ill Eddie Rabbitt. Since then, George Strait has become part of the RodeoHouson fabric: He’s played a total of 21 shows, including the Astrodome’s closing concert in 2002 — its highest-attended event — and the Reliant Stadium’s debut concert in 2003.

And Sunday night, he made one last piece of history with a terrific RodeoHouston appearance, a stop on his “The Cowboy Rides Away Tour.” Along with Martina McBride and the Randy Rogers Band, Strait’s concert-only performance amassed a record-breaking crowd of 80,020.

History aside, it’s fitting that Strait chose RodeoHouston for his final Houston tour stop. The annual event, in its 81st year, embodies the same blend of rugged charm and modern energy that’s kept the 60-year-old singer relevant well into the 21st century. Strait’s sold-out concert appeared almost mystical in its generation-bridging force — its ability to elicit the same level of awestruck respect from young and old.

Strait was preceded by two opening acts, the Texas-bred Randy Rogers Band and tour mate Martina McBride. The former’s material was uneven (thumbs down for “Fuzzy,” a honky tonk spin on Jason Aldean’s party anthems), but its newer offerings, like the raucous “Trouble Knows My Name,” were on-point.

McBride proved a force per usual, her crystalline voice searing through her bread and butter of inspirational ballads with precision and poise. Hits like “A Broken Wing” and “Independence Day” carried as much weight as they did 10 years ago, and the under-appreciated “Love’s The Only House” rang with renewed urgency.

But make no mistake: this was Strait’s house, and McBride knew it. “I’m the luckiest girl in the world. You know why? Cause I get to tour with George freaking Strait,” she yelled.

If McBride’s set was a polished collection of career highlights, Strait’s felt more like a laidback jam session that just happened to be peppered with No. 1 hits. Wearing

his signature Wranglers and a simple black cowboy hat, Strait burned through a deep, career-spanning set of 31 songs, never once losing the crowd’s attention.

“I can’t tell you how happy we are to be here tonight,” he said while taking in the packed stadium, and that earnest joy quickly became the theme of the night.

He had the crowd on its feet with opener “Here for a Good Time,” a beer-raising ode to living like you’re dying, and he followed it with familiar hits “Ocean Front Property” and “Check Yes or No.” Even when he slowed the pace with a one-two punch of the saccharine “I Saw God Today” and somber “Drinkin’ Man,” the energy in the stadium didn’t seem to waver.

Perhaps because Strait promised upfront that he had a few tricks up his sleeve — and indeed he did. Eight songs in, he brought McBride back out for a pair of classic duets, Johnny and June Cash’s “Jackson” and George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “Golden Ring,” which the duo shuffled through with fresh chemistry. It was a moment, among many in the concert, that transcended the confines of time.

Strait then dove into the meat of his show, a career-tracing journey through story and song. He laughed as he recounted his first trip to Nashville in 1981, cutting his first handful of songs and nabbing his breakthrough record deal. He paid tribute to old friends and writers Darryl Staedtler and Dean Dillon while performing early hits “Blame it on Mexico” and “Her Goodbye Hit Me in the Heart” from his debut album Strait Country.

“Are y’all still liking the old stuff?” he asked, before continuing through the 80s with songs like “Honky Tonk Crazy” and the jaunty “80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper,” which had the audience clapping along.

The first emotional jolt of the night came from Strait’s 1982 hit “Marina del Rey,” a song that, over the years, he’s learned to inject with the melancholy weariness it deserves. The crowd sang along audibly while brave couples took to the floor to dance.

The 90s followed with songs from a “little ole movie called ‘Pure Country,’” including “The King of Broken Hearts” and the fast-paced toe-tapper “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” But just like the decade before, it was the slow two-step of “The Chair” that mesmerized the audience, bringing it to a standing ovation that lasted for a good 20 seconds.

When he barreled through to recent years, “Give it Away” punched things up with country-style angst, and “How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls” turned into an endearing sing-along. He brought his catalogue full circle with 1983’s “Amarillo by Morning,” a song he re-recorded on his 2003 album For the Last Time: Live from the Astrodome, capping it off with a gorgeous fiddle solo.

Throughout the show, Strait gave longtime friends Ace in the Hole plenty of room to shine. The band’s craftsmanship was so sharp that it was able to pump much-needed energy into recent sleeper “Rolling on the River of Love” and tepid chart-climber “Give it All We Got Tonight.” In the context of Strait’s superb catalogue, the latter fell undeniably flat – but again, the crowd couldn’t be bothered.

And what a crowd. One scan of the 80,000 plus-filled stadium was overwhelming, a visual reminder of the kind of scale most artists only dream of reaching.

Strait understood that. “I’m really going to miss this,” he said, as he launched into a sentimental performance of “I’ll Always Remember You” off of his past album, Here for a Good Time. His plain-speak ‘thank you’ to fans was achingly sincere –“But you kept calling me back to the stage / And I finally found my place in each and every face,” he sang — but not particularly unique. The better send-off came with Strait’s honest confession, “Troubadour,” which paints a more telling portrait of his career.

Strait appeared to close the show with his very first hit “Unwound,” but was cheered back in for a four-song encore. He hopped from “Same Kind of Crazy” to the crowd-favorite “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” to a solid, foot-stomping cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” Finally, he rode out with “The Cowboy Rides Away,” a potentially cheesy retirement song, but not in his hands.

In an era where singing straight from the heart (pun intended) is heavily sacrificed for bravado and wit, Strait’s presence as a live entertainer — as a cowboy in the least superficial sense of the word —will be simply irreplaceable.

George Strait’s set list:

“Here for a Good Time”
“Ocean Front Property”
“Check Yes or No”
“I Saw God Today”
“Drinkin’ Man”
“Love’s Gonna Make it Alright”
“Arkansas Dave”
“Jackson”
“Golden Ring”
“Blame it on Mexico”
“Her Goodbye Hit Me in the Heart”
“80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper”
“Honky Tonk Crazy”
“Marina del Rey”
“A Fire I Can’t Put Out”
“The King of Broken Hearts”
“Where the Sidewalk Ends”
“The Chair”
“Rolling on the River of Love”
“How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls”
“Give it Away”
“Middle Age Crazy”
“Amarillo by Morning”
“Give it All We Got Tonight”
“I’ll Always Remember You”
“Troubadour”
“Unwound”

Encore:
“Same Kind of Crazy”
“All My Ex’s Live in Texas”
“Folsom Prison Blues”
“The Cowboy Rides Away”

 

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Retro Single Review: George Strait, "Overnight Success"

George_Strait_-_Overnight_Success_single1989 | #1

Written by veteran songwriter Sanger D. “Whitey” Shafer (who had previously supplied Strait with hits such as “Does Forth Worth Ever Cross Your Mind” and “All My Ex’s Live In Texas”), “Overnight Success” was released in the fall of 1989 as fourth and final single from George Strait’s album Beyond the Blue Neon.  It peaked at a respectable #8, breaking a streak of eleven number-one hits, but continuing Strait’s run of Top Ten hits that stretched back seven years.

It’s a beautiful lyric, as one would expect from a songwriter such as Shafer, and Strait sings it effectively.  Where the song comes up short is in the repetitive, limited-range melody, which lacks the pull needed to match the lyrical potency.  The steel guitar imbues a fittingly mournful undertone to the song, but the composite recording has a lackadaisical feel that keeps the record from being as satisfying a listen as it could have been, or from being as memorable as Strait’s similar efforts in this vein.

Written by

Sanger D. Shafer

Grade:  B

Listen:  Overnight Success

Next:  1990-1991

Previous:  “Ace In the Hole”

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CU's Top Singles of 2012

2012Something you probably already know about us here at Country Universe:  We love country music.  A lot.  While truly great country music has become scarce on country radio, we are fortunate to live in an age in which modern technology has made great music more accessible than ever, regardless of whether Top 40 radio dares touch it.

At the close of each year we separate the grain from the chaff, and share the music we discovered over the past year that made us glad that we stuck with our genre of choice.  We at Country Universe have put our heads together to create the following lists of favorite singles and albums of 2012.

Seven writers – Kevin Coyne, Leeann Ward, Dan Milliken, Tara Seetharam, Jonathan Keefe, Sam Gazdziak, and myself –  individually listed our twenty favorite albums and singles of 2012, and used a points system to combine our individual lists into collective lists.  Our Best of 2012 feature will include countdowns of forty albums and forty singles.  Today we reveal our Top 40 Singles, with our Top 40 Albums countdown to follow shortly thereafter.  Enjoy, and please be sure to share your own favorites in the comments section.  Thank you to all for being a part of the Country Universe family in 2012.  We look forward to sharing more great music in 2013.

 

#40
“Southern Comfort Zone”
Brad Paisley

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #13;  Leeann – #20

Brad Paisley has never been one for subtlety, and “Southern Comfort Zone,” with its tacky gospel-choir-singing-“Dixie” coda and Kings of Leon arena-rock chorus, is perhaps his most graceless and didactic effort.  But sometimes it takes the subtlety and precision of a sledgehammer to get one’s point across, especially when your point is a thoughtful and sincere charge to consider how unfamiliar experiences can both reinforce and challenge your core beliefs (a point Paisley makes, it’s worth mentioning, while straying significantly from his trademark aesthetic), and when that point has to be made while trying to shout over a bunch of Ed Hardy-dressed hacks whose entire “artistry” hinges on perpetuating ugly rural-versus-urban class conflicts over music that sounds like a Metallica cover band.  No, it isn’t a single I particularly like listening to, but it’s one I fundamentally respect for challenging what became country’s status quo in 2012. - Jonathan Keefe


#39
“Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)”
Gary Allan

Individual rankings:  Sam – #8

The title is a little trite and sounds like something that Dr. Phil might say, but Allan’s vocal performance and a moody arrangement make this song a winner. - Sam Gazdziak

#38
Goodbye In Her Eyes”
Zac Brown Band

Individual rankings:  Sam – #14;  Leeann – #18

“Goodbye in Her Eyes” is, hands down, the coolest-sounding sad song on the radio in 2012. – Leeann Ward

#37
“In Between Jobs”
Todd Snider

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #6

An update of “Working Man’s Blues” for the modern economic crisis, Todd Snider’s “In Between Jobs” glides along the sleaziest of blues riffs and slowly reveals his frustrated, unemployed narrator’s intentions. Spoiler alert: He doesn’t plan on staging a “We Are the 99%” protest outside the home of the wealthy man he’s addressing. - Jonathan Keefe

#36
“You Go Your Way”
Alan Jackson

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #13;  Sam – #18

“You go your way, and I’ll go crazy,” Jackson sings.  It’s too bad that Jackson has fallen out of radio’s good graces, because this beautiful heartbreaker deserved to be another of his #1 singles. - Sam Gazdziak

#35
“Born to Be Blue”
The Mavericks

Individual rankings:  Ben – #17;  Dan – #18;  Tara – #20

A slice of throwback 50’s pop that reminds us how blissfully therapeutic it feels to pair heartache with a sweet, simple melody. - Tara Seetharam

#34
“Closer”
Mindy Smith

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #12;  Dan – #14

Much like Alison Krauss, to whom Mindy Smith is often compared, you’ll rarely hear Smith’s pretty voice singing upbeat, frivolous songs.  Instead, she tends toward the introspective and even melancholy.  The Swampy “Closer” showcases both tones, but it’s blended with some hopeful optimism as well. - Leeann Ward

#33
“Drunk On You”
Luke Bryan

Individual rankings:  Dan – #12;  Kevin – #14

In reality, I don’t think any woman could take a guy seriously if he told her that “you make my speakers go boom-boom.”  Funny how the best country music is far more forgiving than reality. - Kevin John Coyne

#32
“Cruise”
Florida Georgia Line

Individual rankings:  Dan – #3

Sorry, people with taste; there’s (I mean – there’z) a reason this abomination is riding high. It’s the catchiest country sing-along since “Wagon Wheel.” - Dan Milliken

#31
“When I’m Gone”
Joey + Rory

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #12;  Ben – #12

A pensive meditation on the process of grief, delivered through one of Joey Martin Feek’s most deeply moving performances on record.  While it obviously had no chance at country radio, “When I’m Gone” is nonetheless a standout career achievement for this exceptionally talented husband-and-wife duo.  - Ben Foster

#30
“Postcard from Paris”
The Band Perry

Individual rankings:  Ben – #11;  Sam – #13

In spite of their occasional misfires, “Postcard from Paris” is a moment in which the Perry siblings are able to effectively marry their lovably quirky nature to a lyrical concept that actually works – and works beautifully, with a titular analogy that’s both clever and effective, and a refrain that bites subtly but sharply (“The meanest thing you ever did is come around…and now I’m ruined”).  Finish it off with an arrangement that sounds like something off of the Dixie Chicks’ Fly, and everybody wins.  - Ben Foster

#29
“When It Pleases You”
Sara Watkins

Individual rankings:  Dan – #10;  Leeann – #17

With slow, seething ire, Watkins faces the truth that she’s giving her whole heart to a relationship and getting jack back.  “I call you when I want to hear –,” she sighs, “– my voice whisper…in your voicemail’s ear.” - Dan Milliken

#28
“Live and Die”

The Avett Brothers

Individual rankings:  Sam – #2

The lead single from The Avetts Brothers’ new album was the perfect middle ground between their charmingly rough-around-the-edges independent albums and their more polished I and Love and You release from 2010.  There is something about the Avetts singing sentimental, romantic lyrics over the strumming of a banjo that’s just so right- Sam Gazdziak

#27
“Is It Already Time?”
Wade Hayes

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #10;  Dan – #15

A to-the-point account of getting a diagnosis out of nowhere and suddenly having to stare down one’s own mortality. - Dan Milliken

#26
“Safe & Sound”
Taylor Swift featuring The Civil Wars

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #10;  Jonathan – #14

The soft production and gentle melody of “Safe & Sound” compliment Taylor Swift’s wispy voice rather than competing against it, as is prone to happen in many of Swift’s recordings.  The addition of The Civil Wars’ sublime vocal support greatly elevates a recording that would have been pretty good without them, but turns out to be even better with them. - Leeann Ward

#25
“I Like Girls That Drink Beer”
Toby Keith

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #9;  Leeann – #16

Keith revisits the classic uptown girl/downtown boy pairing that’s resulted in so many great country records in years gone by. - Kevin John Coyne

#24
“Plant White Roses”
Kelly Hogan

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #1

Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields is one of pop music’s most sardonic, morose songwriters, prone to declarations like, “Plant white roses, and plan to cry/If I can’t spend my life with you, I want to die.” But Kelly

Hogan, best known for her work singing back-up with Neko Case, is a such a gifted interpretive singer that she’s able to find the humanity in Merritt’s sad-sack narrators, and it’s her multifaceted, nuanced reading of “Plant White Roses” that ropes the song into the country genre. - Jonathan Keefe

#23
“Good Girl”
Carrie Underwood

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #6;  Dan – #16

A rockin’ little record that exudes Underwood’s growing confidence as a singer and a songwriter.  A much-needed shot of adrenaline into the arm of country radio. - Kevin John Coyne

#22
“Hello Cruel World”
Gretchen Peters

Individual rankings:  Ben – #8;  Sam – #12

An insightful, slyly self-deprecating take on middle age and mortality, with the narrator musing “I’m not dead, but I’m damaged goods, and it’s getting late.”  A clever pun of a title hook reflects the narrator’s resolve to make peace with the past, and to keep moving forward.  - Ben Foster

#21
“Dig Gravedigger Dig”
Corb Lund

Individual rankings:  Sam – #4;  Jonathan – #18

Lund gives a little love to the gravedigging profession with this bluesy stomper.  It’s perhaps a little twisted, but more country songs could stand to reference rigor mortis these days. - Sam Gazdziak

#20
“I’m a Mess”
Rodney Crowell

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #4;  Kevin – #16

From his collaborative project with Mary Karr that includes many esteemed guest artists, this Rodney Crowell-performed cut emerges as one of the strongest.  With a production that would neatly fit on one of his albums of the 2000’s, the lyric suits the chaos that its title suggests. - Leeann Ward

#19
“Fly Over States”
Jason Aldean

Individual rankings:  Tara – #7;  Dan – #9

Aldean relaxes his badass-hicktown-pride muscles for a moment and reveals the beating heart beneath.  It’s like a heartland-rock “Colors of the Wind” – and what could be more badass than that- Dan Milliken

#18
“Even If It Breaks Your Heart”
Eli Young Band

Individual rankings:  Sam – #5;  Tara – #16;  Jonathan – #16;  Dan – #20

The song was written by Will Hoge and Eric Paslay, but the Eli Young Band made this tale about preservation and hope their own.  Given the ups and downs and should’ve-been-hits that the Texas group has seen in its career, they’ve lived this song. - Sam Gazdziak

#17
“Two Black Cadillacs”
Carrie Underwood

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #4;  Tara – #4;  Ben – #18

A haunting Southern Gothic tale of revenge, heavy on the catharsis and light on the narrative.  Underwood fills in the gaps with a spot-on performance – imbuing it with chilling fury, sinister joy, and just enough poise to suggest she knows tantalizingly more than we do. - Tara Seetharam

#16
“Beer Money”
Kip Moore

Individual rankings:  Dan – #8;  Tara – #9;  Kevin – #11  Ben – #19

The year’s finest blue-collar drinkin’ song, crackling with desperation and sexual friction. - Dan Milliken

#15
“Better Dig Two”
The Band Perry

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #7;  Leeann – #9;  Dan – #11;  Tara – #19

The second most surprising moment in country music in 2012 was that The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” finds producer Dann Huff, known for his heavy hand at the mixing board and his affinity for maudlin arrangements, doing an on-point impression of Rick Rubin.  But the most surprising moment in country music in 2012 has to be the casual reference to crystal meth in the single’s second verse.  Artists like Drive-By Truckers and Hank III have addressed rural America’s drug of choice for years now, but who would’ve ever expected that the exceedingly polite, ridiculously coiffed Perry siblings – and not, say, Eric Church in full “outlaw” drag – would’ve been the ones to bring a parallel between one of the nastiest, most damaging of vices and the addictive powers of love to country radio?  Or that they’d pull off such a thing with the kind of authority and conviction that make “Better Dig Two” so searing?  This isn’t a wistful fantasy about what happens if the narrator dies young; it’s an open threat of how things very likely will end. – Jonathan Keefe

#14
“I Just Come Here for the Music”
Don Williams featuring Alison Krauss

Individual rankings:  Ben – #6;  Sam – #7;  Dan – #17;  Kevin – #20

Don Williams’ return from retirement was a nice surprise in and of itself.  And So It Goes found Williams still at the top of his game, and this duet with Krauss is one of the many highlights.  His deep baritone and her angelic harmonies blend beautifully. - Sam Gazdziak

#13
“The Dreaming Fields”
Matraca Berg

Individual rankings:  Ben – #2;  Leeann – #6;  Jonathan – #10

In one of the finest songs by one of country music’s finest songwriters, Matraca Berg lays bare her feelings of wistfulness over the loss of a family farm embodying scores of memories.  “The Dreaming Fields” boasts a deeply compelling melody, a chillingly effective arrangement, and a gut-wrenching vocal performance.  I may not know the first thing about farming, but one thing I do understand is the meaning of a memory.  This song rips my heart out. - Ben Foster

#12
“Springsteen”
Eric Church

Individual rankings:  Dan – #6;  Tara – #6;  Leeann – #15;  Jonathan – #17;  Ben – #20

The song was a pretty piece of nostalgia to begin with. But Jay Joyce’s hypnotic groove lifts the record to a higher ground, giving it the same sort of spiritual beauty often attributed to its namesake’s best work. - Dan Milliken

#11
“Blown Away”
Carrie Underwood

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #2;  Dan – #7;  Tara – #14;  Ben – #15

An epic single with both a theme and a production big enough to contain the overwhelming vocal powerhouse that is Carrie Underwood.  Give her points for being courageous enough to tackle this topic on record, but get down on your knees and offer praise and gratitude for being talented enough to pull it off. - Kevin John Coyne

#10
“The Wind”

Zac Brown Band

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #2;  Tara – #11;  Leeann – #13;  Ben – #14;  Sam – #19

With an impressive string of Top 2 hits and a couple of platinum-plus albums to their credit, Zac Brown Band had earned the opportunity to take a risk leading up to the release of their third studio album.  While Uncaged had no shortage of obvious radio hits, the band, who have always been more of a “Southern” band than a proper “country” outfit, chose to prove their genre bona fides by releasing “The Wind.”  A fast-picking, freewheeling romp, “The Wind” sets the ideal stage for a “hoedown” vs. “hootenanny” debate. The song’s breakneck speed and clever turns-of-phrase may have proved too much for radio, where it became the band’s first single to miss the Top 10, but it’s a single that highlighted the real breadth of Zac Brown Band’s range. - Jonathan Keefe

#9
“The Sound of a Million Dreams”
David Nail

Individual rankings:  Tara – #1;  Kevin – #8;  Ben – #9;  Dan – #19

With an arrangement as rich as its sentiment, “The Sound of a Million Dreams” is an elegant tribute to songs, punctuated by a searing second verse.  Billy Joel could have mastered this piano ballad, but he wouldn’t have delivered it with such painfully earnest hope.  And in an era where too many artists have the audacity to present us with career-low music, Nail’s unapologetic faith in the power of his craft is deeply, depressingly refreshing. - Tara Seetharam

#8
“Creepin'”
Eric Church

Individual rankings:  Sam – #1;  Dan – #2;  Leeann – #8;  Tara – #15

With an ominous vibe and distorted vocals, Church manages to come up with a unique song in an increasingly cookie-cutter genre.  From the opening “bom bom bom bah-dom” to its searing guitar solos, “Creepin’” is one of the year’s most distinctive singles in any genre.  When all to many “country-rock” songs are really just rock songs about country things, “Creepin’” really does manage to blend the two elements into something new and exciting. - Sam Gazdziak

#7
“Neon”
Chris Young

Individual rankings:  Tara – #3;  Dan – #5;  Leeann – #7;  Jonathan – #8;  Ben – #13

Young’s ode to a bar gracefully treads the line between vintage and current, packed with clever imagery and backed by a sturdy neotraditional arrangement.  But don’t pity the patron a la “Neon Moon” – Young trades Ronnie Dunn’s loneliness for sweet, boozy contentment.  Note by note, he melts the entire song into a sublime pool of resignation, a near-perfect encapsulation of those hazy, memory-drowning nights. - Tara Seetharam

#6
“Takin’ Pills”
Pistol Annies

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #3;  Leeann – #5;  Sam – #9;  Tara – #10;  Ben – #10

Miranda Lambert’s critical clout took a considerable hit in 2012 as a result of back-to-back career-worst singles, but the second proper single from the Pistol Annies was plenty strong enough to keep Lambert associated with some of the smartest, most self-aware songwriting in modern country.  “Takin’ Pills” finds the Annies having an absolute ball in playing dress-up, and the song is all the better because they give their audience credit for knowing exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.  During a year when so many acts were preoccupied with misguided notions of authenticity, to hear the Annies flaunt their artifice so brazenly made for a welcome change of pace.  It’s a shame — albeit an unsurprising one — that country radio still won’t give them the time of day. - Jonathan Keefe

#5
“Like a Rose”
Ashley Monroe

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #1;  Ben – #5;  Jonathan – #9;  Sam – #10;  Tara – #13

Hearing a new country song from Ashley Monroe, as a solo artist, has been a long time coming.  While the wait has been tough, the payoff has certainly been worth it.  “Like A Rose”, the first song that the public has been able to hear from her upcoming 2013 album, is a crisply produced, sharply written and exquisitely sung gem.  High praise for a song that may unfortunately ultimately slip under the radar, but such praise is easily warranted here. - Leeann Ward

#4
“Drinkin’ Man”
George Strait

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #3;  Ben – #3;  Tara – #5;  Jonathan – #5;  Leeann – #11

There are few bright spots that come with the knowledge that Strait is in the twilight of his career, with retirement seeming more likely with each passing year.  One particularly shiny one is that Strait’s become something of a vanguard in these final years.  “Drinkin’ Man” is challenging, compelling, and subtly powerful, not adjectives typically associated with his remarkable thirty years of hits.  He’s always been good, but he’s rarely been this interesting. - Kevin John Coyne

#3
“What Have I Done”
LeAnn Rimes

Individual rankings:  Tara – #2;  Leeann – #3;  Dan – #4;  Ben – #4;  Kevin – #5

Music’s finest quality is its ability to express the intangible – the smallest trace of thought, the slightest nuance of emotion.  “What Have I Done” is a striking example of this, a quiet shuffle of pain, regret and reflection that, if only for a few minutes, elevates a well-known story to a three-dimensional reality.  The lyrics are sharp and unadorned, but the song’s soul is Rimes’ layered performance, easily the most compelling of the year. - Tara Seetharam

#2
“So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore”
Alan Jackson

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #1;  Ben – #1;  Jonathan – #4;  Tara – #8;  Sam – #11

Had it been released fifteen or twenty years ago, “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore” would stand a much greater chance at being remembered as the classic it is.  Shameful #25 chart peak aside, this is an achingly beautiful, finely detailed story of a man who is willing to let his reputation fall into ruins for the sake of allowing his former lover to move on without him, resigning himself to a despondent, heartbroken existence in which nothing matters to him at all except the happiness of the one he loves.  A steel guitar, a nakedly sincere vocal, and the dark, bitter, aching truth – It’s everything a great country record should be.  A timeless career highlight from a true country music legend. - Ben Foster

#1
“Merry Go ‘Round”
Kacey Musgraves

Individual rankings:  Dan – #1;  Leeann – #2;  Sam – #3;  Kevin – #7;  Ben – #7;  Tara – #12

In a single masterful stroke, Musgraves cuts to the fearful, defeated heart of countless small-towners – countless any-towners, really.  The nursery-rhyme chorus is country poetry of the highest order, illustrating in a few simple lines how we compromise ourselves rather than face the unknown, turning to one distraction or another until we almost don’t notice the years rolling by, our dreams collecting dust.

It would have been a standout single in most any era of country music.  That it’s managed to go Top 20 in this era – in which the mainstream anxiously evades things that are smart, challenging, new, and female – feels like a small miracle, and speaks to the timeless power of great music to transcend meaningless boundaries.  It’s the most impressive debut country single in recent memory, and an enticing challenge to an ever-reductive Music Row:  Truth and creativity can still win out in 2012. - Dan Milliken

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Single Review: George Strait, "Give It All We Got Tonight"

 It’s surely tempting to give George Strait a free pass based on the impressive strength of his back catalog, or even for his regular use of audible fiddle and steel.  But this just doesn’t cut it.

Strait previews his upcoming 28th studio album with a mellow contemporary country love song that suggests what “I Gotta Get to You” might have been without the lively melody and charming fiddle hook.  From “July moonlight shines/ Your pretty little head on my shoulder” to the juvenile couplet of “Baby, fall into my kiss/ It should just happen like this,” the lyrics are thoroughly vanilla, leaning on stock imagery that’s neither interesting nor original.

The melody is so weak, particularly during the awkward-sounding chorus, that any vocalist trying to sell this song would clearly have his work cut out for him.  While George Strait’s strenghts as a vocalist have been well documented over the past thirty years, this song is a poor fit for his voice, leaving him sounding bland instead of highlighting his unique vocal gifts.  Tacky echo effects mar an otherwise solid production job, but overall the record is like water – completely flavorless.

With a lyric and melody that fail to rise above mediocrity, there’s no way for the song to achieve any connection deeper than surface level.  I wanted to like it, but “Give It All We Got Tonight”

is plain boring – an underwhelming disappointment of an entry from an artist who has already secured a place as one of the genre’s all-time greats.

Written by Tim James, Phil O’Donnell and Mark Bright

Grade:  C-

Listen:  Give It All We Got Tonight

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Retro Single Review: George Strait, "Ace in the Hole"

1989 | Peak: #1

A Western Swing spin on “The Gambler.”

Not much to say about it beyond that.  It bounces along pleasantly enough, and despite

the recycled life lessons, it still packs a little punch.

It also showcases Strait’s live sound better than most of his singles do, letting the band loose for a surprisingly long time, given the remarkably short 2:34 running time.

Fun fact: the B-side of the single was “Oh Me, Oh My, Sweet Baby”, which would be a top five hit for Diamond Rio a few years later.

Written by Dennis Adkins

Grade: B+

Next: Overnight Success

Previous: What’s Going on in  Your World

 

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Retro Single Review: George Strait, "What's Going On In Your World"

1989 | #1

Has the fiddle ever sounded sweeter?

George Strait’s eleventh consecutive #1 single, and seventeenth overall, is an absolutely delicious traditional country weeper.  In a classic country music scenario, Strait’s brokenhearted narrator contacts his former lover to inquire of her welfare in the time since the dissolution of their relationship.

The line “Just tell me that you’re happy, and I’ll hang up the phone” is a perfect lyrical synopsis of the

point at which the narrator has found himself.  His life alone has become hollow and unfulfilling, and the only thing he wishes is for his love to be happy – a sentiment that conveys loneliness as well as bittersweet selflessness, fully realized in Strait’s sincere, unaffected vocal delivery.

Even if the lyrics had not been so potent, “What’s Going On In Your World” would still have legs to stand as an instrumental showcase, thanks in large part to the mourful, crying fiddle that winds through the song.  It’s a testament to the ability of a compelling melody, and a simple no-frills country production to connect with deep-seated emotions, even without a word being sung.

No unnecessary bells or whistles.  Just three minutes and twenty-nine seconds of King George doing what King George does best.

Written by David Chamberlain, Royce Porter, and Red Steagall

Grade:  A

Next:  Ace In the Hole

Previous:  Baby’s Gotten Good at Goodbye

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Retro Single Review: George Strait, "Baby's Gotten Good at Goodbye"

1988 | Peak: #1

Back in the early nineties, CMT used to run videos 24/7.  It was very predictable.  Three videos, commercial break.  Three more videos, commercial break.

Occasionally, they’d do a “Triple Take”, where they’d play three videos in a row by the same artist.  It was a good way to discover an artist’s catalog.  I didn’t know “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” existed until CMT did a Triple Take for Pam Tillis, who I’d first noticed with the ridiculous video for “Put Yourself in My Place” and fell in love with when she released “Maybe it was Memphis.”

When it was an older artist like Alabama or Reba McEntire, Triple Takes could feature any number of videos stretching back several years.  But even back then, George Strait loathed making videos, and

he had only three of them in rotation by the summer of 1992, when I spent hours on end watching CMT.

The end result?  I saw the video for “Baby’s Gotten Good at Goodbye” at least a hundred times, making it a far bigger classic in my mind than it would be if my primary exposure to country music had been through radio instead of video.

This single is so closely associated with my discovery of George Strait’s music and country music as a whole that I can’t separate the experience enough to give “Baby’s Gotten Good at Goodbye” an objective evaluation.  It was my first favorite song by one of my most favorite artists, and the only one of his that I can’t listen to without picturing every frame of the video.

Seriously.  The girl with the bad eighties perm is always carrying that saddle and counting her pawn shop money in my head, every single time I listen to the record.  Which is something I still do quite often, because it’s awesome.

Written by Tony Martin and George Martin

Grade: A

Next: What’ s Going on in Your World

Previous: If You Ain’t Lovin’ (You Ain’t Livin’)

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Single Review: Alan Jackson, “You Go Your Way”

You know the country music market is in sore straits when a career-best effort from Alan Jackson dies outside the Top 20 on the charts.  It’s easy to wonder if, after more than two decades of populating country airwaves with quality material well-sung and tastefully produced, the hits may finally be drying up for Alan Jackson.  That would be a huge shame, because finely polished country tunes like current single “You Go Your Way” are becoming increasingly rare on country radio, with Jackson having been one of the last nineties veterans standing who was still able to sneak such efforts into the playlists.

In structure and theme, “You Go Your Way” bears a moderate resemblance to George Strait’s classic 1993 hit “Easy Come, Easy Go,” but with a deeper shade of heartache.  Though Jackson’s narrator at first seems to profess the same casual indifference as Strait does when watching his lover leave, he soon reveals that he’s not taking it all in stride – a fact made unmistakable by the hook “You go your way… and I’ll go crazy.”  Clever little couplets like “I poured some bourbon in a coffee cup/ It’s been too long since I drank too much”  add interest and first-person detail to the scenario without distracting from it.  He’s not so much wallowing in his sorrow as accepting it with passive resignation.

The lyric is framed in a quietly infectious melody as well as a fiddle and steel-drenched Keith Stegall arrangement that sounds absolutely fantastic.  Though we would generally expect nothing less from Alan Jackson, such work seems almost revolutionary in comparison to the warmed-over sounds that have all but taken over country radio.

Whether “You Go Your Way” will re-ignite Jackson’s radio success remains to be seen, but if not, it won’t be for lack of quality.  Though its artistry doesn’t stand quite as tall in Jackson’s catalog as “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore,” “You Go Your Way” is an all-around solid record that would make a most refreshing presence on the airwaves should it find a home on country radio.

Written by Troy Jones, Tony Lane, and David Lee

Grade:  A-

Listen:  You Go Your Way

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iPod Check: Most Played Song by Twenty Country Artists

Since bringing back Recommend a Track proved so popular, I’m resurrecting another CU oldie but goodie: the iPod check.

I’ve only recently discovered the Most Played feature on iTunes, since it never had any relevance until iPods were large enough in memory to sync all of my music.   So going back to early 2011, I have a lengthy list of the songs I’ve played the most.

So today’s iP0d check:  List your most-played song from twenty different country artists.

You can access this info by going to your own Most Played list and adjusting the number of songs on it – I use 500 for mine – or you can just go to Music and sort by number of plays.  Or you can just pick twenty artists at random and list your most played song for each.  We’re easy here.  (This would also work in Spotify, from what I hear.)

Here’s my top twenty:

  1. Pam Tillis – Deep Down (89 plays)
  2. Keith Urban – I Told You So (81)
  3. Dixie Chicks – Long Time Gone (71)
  4. Taylor Swift – Mean (68)
  5. Trisha Yearwood – Where Are You Now (63)
  6. Patty Loveless – You Can Feel Bad (59)
  7. Emmylou Harris – Easy From Now On (55)
  8. Carrie Underwood – Undo It (50)
  9. Lori McKenna – Lorraine (50)
  10. Dwight Yoakam – Ain’t That Lonely Yet (46)
  11. Sara Evans – Rocking Horse (45)
  12. Sawyer Brown – Cafe on the Corner (45)
  13. Reba McEntire – The Fear of Being Alone (44)
  14. Shania Twain – Up! (43)
  15. Faith

    Hill – Stealing Kisses (41)

  16. Alan Jackson – So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore (40)
  17. Crystal Gayle – Why Have Your Left the One You Left Me For (39)
  18. George Strait – Meanwhile (39)
  19. Lee Ann Womack – I May Hate Myself in the Morning (39)
  20. Aaron Tippin – Whole Lotta Love on the Line (38)

I’m surprised that some of my most played artists overall, like Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, and Tim McGraw, don’t have that one big song that I play excessively.  Also, at least half of the songs above aren’t what I would call my favorite song by the given artist.  How about you?

 

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