Nonesuch has released an impressive deluxe edition of the landmark Emmylou Harris album, Wrecking Ball. For those who are new to the set, this is the edition you should buy. But it’s also worth the upgrade for those who already have this set in their collection.
Produced by Daniel Lanois, this album was a stunning departure for Harris, so much so that she personally requested that it not be eligible for the country charts. That’s funny in retrospect, given that alongside legends like Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young, the album was anchored by compositions by up-and-coming songwriters like Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, and Julie Miller. With further cuts by writers like Anna McGarrigle, Steve Earle, and Rodney Crowell, Wrecking Ball helped set a template for what would become a vibrant Americana scene over the years that followed.
Nice history lesson, right? But the reason this album sounded great then, and still does now, is because the songs are fantastic and the production is evocatively original. It still sounds fresh today, and while Emmylou would hold on to remnants of this sound for next few projects, it has both its birth and its zenith on this record. It might be her best album, period, and it’s definitely her most ambitious and interesting.
The deluxe edition’s best element is its second disc of demos and outtakes, which help tell the story of how some of these songs took shape. I was most fascinated by the revved-up, rapid-fire “Deeper Well”, and the melancholy reading of the self-penned “Gold”, which she would include in a (slightly) more upbeat version on her 2008 album, All I Intended to Be. It didn’t quite fit with the rest of Wrecking Ball. All of the outtakes and demos included indicate the album was released in its best possible form, and most are for the completist only.
The bonus DVD is a 1995 documentary called Building the Wrecking Ball. It’s an overlong puff piece that’s most entertaining for its showcase of mid-nineties “serious musician” garb. Emmylou in sleeveless flannel aside, the doc also features what I consider the most maddening editorial choice films like this can make: playing the final album version of a song over mixed footage of said song being recorded and being performed live. For me, it made watching it unbearable.
But the packaging is worth the upgrade, with a fantastic new essay by Gillian Welch and nearly typo-free lyrics for both the original album and the second disc of rarities. Some nice photos, too. Overall, it’s a more serious deluxe take than we’ve gotten on any Emmylou Harris album to date, putting those Rhino reissues of her earlier work to shame.
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For nine decades and counting, country music has been defined by the single, with only the format and definition changing over time.
Today, a single could be any one of the following: a CD sent to radio for airplay; a digital download released in advance of an album; a music video released to online websites and dwindling television outlets; and in a lovely throwback, a seven inch vinyl single sold in the indie record stores that have managed to outlast the chain stores that once threatened their existence.
Seven Country Universe editors and contributors each submitted their twenty favorite singles of the year. 59 different singles made the cut, and over the next four days, we’ll share with you the top forty. You can listen to a sample from each song by scrolling down to the bottom of the post.
A musical expression of gratitude from the incomparable Emmylou Harris to her late musical mentor Gram Parsons. Through her lyric and vocal, Harris conveys a wide array of emotions – obviously sadness, along with nostalgia for times past, wonderment and uncertainty, as well as determination to persevere in spite of heartache, while also highlighting the invaluable role of music in coping with a devastating loss.
Above all else, however, “The Road” is a song of thankfulness for having had such a friend in the first place, even if for only a brief time. – Ben Foster
Shut Up Train
Little Big Town
Individual Rankings: Kevin – #13
Far from the first country song to build a train metaphor around a heartache, this one is distinguished by a strong vocal performance and the creative approach of having the protagonist talk directly to the train. – Kevin John Coyne
Let it Rain
David Nail featuring Sarah Buxton
Individual Rankings: Sam – #15; Dan – #19
Nail’s moody streak continues, this time with a ringing cheater’s lament. He’s so appalled at himself that he calls on the heavens to rain down judgment. But it’s Buxton who strikes the gavel in the end, as her voice shreds with the pain of a woman whose world will never be the same. – Dan Milliken
Individual Rankings: #12 – Sam
The pop-country version of Taylor Swift is a bona fide superstar. However, when she strips down the production and shows off her quieter, folksy side like she does on “Ours,” she really shines. Based on the quality of her past singles “Ours” and “Mine,” she’ll have a real winner if she ever gets around to writing “Yours.” – Sam Gazdziak
Individual Rankings: #12 – Jonathan
It’s often hard to separate Caitlin Rose’s music from her Manic Pixie Dream Girl persona– that she sings like Zooey Deschanel with a far better sense of pitch doesn’t help, either– but “Shanghai Cigarettes” makes it clear that she learned a lot about songcraft from her mother, frequent Taylor Swift collaborator Liz Rose. – Jonathan Keefe
Individual Rankings: #11 – Tara
Two parts neo-traditional charm, one part that voice and a dash of breezy sensuality. Goes down smoother than anything since James Otto rode the airwaves. More, please. – Tara Seetharam
Fixin’ to Die
Individual Rankings: #14 – Jonathan; #19 – Dan
One of the elements that distinguishes contemporary country from traditional genre forms is a heavy use of percussion, and G. Love ups the ante in that regard on “Fixin’ to Die.” By marrying a straightforward acoustic blues arrangement to a rhythm section lifted almost entirely from J-Kwon’s “Tipsy,” G. Love effectively thumbs his nose at the idea of a rural vs urban divide. – Jonathan Keefe
Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise
The Avett Brothers
Individual Rankings: #10 – Sam
The Avetts’ I and Love and You was one of the best albums of 2010, and this song was one of its highlights. For a band that can deliver some raucus punk-bluegrass tunes, they can also put together hauntingly pretty songs too.- Sam Gazdziak
Barefoot Blue Jean Night
Individual Rankings: #7 – Dan
Contrived, utopian visions of Southern partying are practically an entire country sub-genre now. “Barefoot” checks all the formulaic boxes, but for once the formula’s impossible details (“the girls are always hot and the beer is ice cold!”) are matched to an equally dreamlike, shimmering production, exposing what a fantasy the whole thing is. You can’t buy the premise, but you grant the underlying escapism.- Dan Milliken
Down by the Water
Individual Rankings: #11 – Sam; #17 – Leeann
As has been noted, “Down by the Water” seems influenced by an R.E.M. sound. However, the brightly placed harmonica and accordion, along with aggressive background vocals by Gillian Welch, make the melodic composition a memorable song on its own merits. – Leeann Ward
About a man spending one last night with his lover, frozen in the “good times” instead of thinking about the pain that will inevitably ensue. There are plenty of versions of this song that I enjoy, but Johnson’s hits on the exact swirl of genres that just gets to me.
Kevin Coyne: “Pushing Up Daisies” – Garth Brooks
My favorite metaphor about time and the importance of making it count is captured in the chorus of this song.
When I looked through my iTunes to find a song about time, as you might imagine, many of them were reflective and conveyed some sort of sentimentality. But I love this breakneck version of Gillian Welch and David Rawling’s “Wayside (Back in Time)” the best.
One of my favorite tracks from Lambert’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was her spin on Gillian Welch’s “Dry Town.” I’m happy to report that her new single, “Only Prettier”, has a twangy guitar hook that’s nearly identical to the one that underscored that album track.
But wow, is the arrangement surrounding it more ambitious. Lambert’s quickly built a reputation as being a progressive artist, so it’s easier for her to get a free pass on a record that sounds like a misguided attempt to remix a country song for mainstream rock radio. The thrashing guitars drown out the steel guitar and come close to overshadowing a great vocal performance from Lambert.
It also undermines the message of the song, which is lyrically brilliant. She deconstructs the southern charm façade with cutting abandon, showing how a southern girl doesn’t need to be aggressive or loud to be bitingly vicious; she can do it with a smile and a “Bless your heart.”
That message would’ve been more effective had the arrangement remained as light and twangy as the opening few seconds.
But even the awkward production choice isn’t enough to hold “Only Prettier” back from being a successful record. It’s one of her finest moments as a songwriter, and among her strongest vocal performances. The latter is a crucial part of the record’s success, as there are so many layers of irony and sarcasm in the lyric.
So this one definitely goes into heavy rotation for me, but I eagerly await an acoustic version that strips away those thrashing guitars!
Pam Tillis, It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis
By the time she released a tribute to her father Mel, she’d become something of a legend in her own right. So it’s no surprise that she approached Mel’s stellar songwriting catalog as if she was recording any other studio album, taking the best of the bunch and making them her own. Bonus points for preserving the original fiddle breakdown from “Heart Over Mind” while making that classic shuffle a forlorn ballad, and a few more for hitting the archives of the Country Music Hall of Fame until she found a forgotten gem that should’ve been a hit back in the day (“Not Like it Was With You.”) – Kevin Coyne
Yoakam takes a new, inspired spin on the greatest hits album concept, presenting us with a hearty sampling (over 20 songs) of his catalog served acoustic style. It simply works for the country legend. He introduces some delightful new twists and turns to his old classics, and as it should go with acoustic music, the album is driven by unadulterated, raw vocals, coupled with honest storytelling – the purest form of country music. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere”, “Things Change”
Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator)
Time (The Revelator) is Gillian Welch and David Rawlings with much of their typical production stripped away. Accompanied by acoustic guitar and banjo, Gillian sings with emotions as much as she sings notes that create a surprisingly full sound. – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll”, “Red Clay Halo”
Reba McEntire, Reba Duets
That McEntire is able to smoothly and effortlessly wrap her voice around eleven other distinctive voices is a tribute to her sheer talent as an artist. With duet partners stretching from Justin Timberlake to Ronnie Dunn, McEntire presents a stunning, layered mix of sounds and styles, demonstrating that when gifted artists come together, no perceived boundaries can stop them from making good music. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “The Only Promise That Remains”, “When You Love Someone Like That”
Lee Ann Womack, Call Me Crazy
Very few country artists can express pain more poignantly than Womack, who taps into a place of tender desperation with her highly-acclaimed 2008 album. The stories are deep and reflective, the sorrow palpable, and the production adeptly sparse – a potent combination. – TS
Nickel Creek has been nominated for Best Bluegrass Album and Best Country Instrumental Performance Grammys and won Best Contemporary Folk Album, yet the group does not easily fit into any of those categories. Produced by Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek’s self-titled album is their most bluegrass-influenced album. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “The Fox”, “The Hand Song”
Sara Watkins, Sara Watkins
Sara Watkins’ self-titled debut holds more than a few surprises, including more country influence than you will hear from any of her former Nickel Creek bandmates’ solo work. Produced by John Paul Jones, pedal steel is prominent on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Any Old Time,” performed as western swing, “All this Time,” and Tom Waits’ “Pony.” – WW
Recommended Tracks: “All This Time”, “Give Me Jesus”
Dierks Bentley, Modern Day Drifter
Rife with accessible melodies, solid lyrics and a penchant for traditional sounds, Dierks Bentley’s sophomore project, Modern Day Drifter, confirmed the promise that was only hinted at on his first album. The title of the album rightly suggests that Bentley will explore the components of breaking the chains of domesticity, which include the freedom (“Lotta Leavin’ Left to Do”, “Modern Day Drifter”, “Domestic Light and Cold”, “the Cab of My Truck”) and the ultimate consequences (“Settle for a Slowdown”, “Down on Easy Street”). Nevertheless, Bentley does not stop with those themes. He also finds room for common themes as love and loss, as demonstrated in the pretty “Good Things Happen”, the smoldering “Come A Little Closer” and heartbreaking “Gonna Get There Someday.” – Leeann Ward
Todd Snider, The Devil You Know
An explosion of righteous anger over poverty with an undercurrent of joyous celebration of America’s underclass. You can never tell for sure if he sees himself as their advocate or their peer, but the songs are so powerful, it doesn’t really matter. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Just Like Old Times”, “The Devil You Know”
Rodney Crowell, The Houston Kid
After a string of somewhat underwhelming major-label releases in the 90’s, Rodney Crowell rebounded in a big way with this remarkably deep set on celebrated indie label Sugar Hill. Childhood joys and adult insights stand side-by-side in The Houston Kid, producing an emotionally rich and complicated survey of the album’s world. Such is the detail and soul of Crowell’s writing that every second comes across as autobiographical, even the ones that probably aren’t. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “The Rock Of My Soul”, “I Walk The Line (Revisited)”
McBride has a voice that would have been as relevant in country music fifty years ago as it is today, and her album of cover songs exemplifies this. She doesn’t attempt to move any of the songs to a different level, but instead inhabits the artists’ original style with precision and spirit. The result is a pure, respectful homage to the country greats. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Make The World Go Away”, “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down”
Felice Brothers, Yonder is the Clock
The Felice Brothers are the least-known among the members of ‘The Big Surprise Tour’ headlined by Old Crow Medicine Show and featuring Dave Rawlings Machine with Gillian Welch, and Justin Townes Earle. Melding country-rock and folk-rock, they are roots-influenced and made their start playing in the subway. While it may take an extremely big tent to call them “country,” consistent Dylan comparisons make Yonder is the Clock hard to ignore. – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Run, Chicken, Run”, “The Big Surprise”
Big & Rich, Horse of a Different Color
Big Kenny’s and John Rich’s voices and creativity blend to form a richly textured harmony that is only fully realized when they work together, as is most evident on their debut album that took country music by storm in a huge way. While their subsequent projects haven’t even come close to matching the potential of their first, Horse of A Different Coloris an album of refreshing risks and creativity that has been both embraced and criticized as a result of unique production and odd lyrical twists. Songs ranging from ridiculous to philosophical and all points inbetween make this album one of the most memorable, if not controversial, mainstream albums of the decade. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Holy Water”, “Live This Life”
Dierks Bentley, Long Trip Alone
Bentley takes his road theme all the way, crafting a concept album that both celebrates the loneliness of the road and mourns the resting places left behind by those who choose to stay on it. – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Long Trip Alone”, “The Heaven I’m Headed To”
Josh Turner, Everything is Fine
Turner’s third album is an outstanding example of a style that is deeply traditional yet still current, assured yet still vulnerable. His distinctive voice is paired with a well-crafted and charming set of songs on this album, which further solidified him as one of the genre’s leading traditionalists. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Another Try”, “Nowhere Fast”
Reckless Kelly, Bulletproof
Country and power-pop collide in one of Texas’ most memorable albums in years. If Bulletproof has a weakness, it’s that its love songs and road anthems are all so damn hooky that the deeper material has to fight to steal your attention away. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “American Blood”, “Mirage”
Chick Corea & Béla Fleck, The Enchantment
The Enchantment is a collaboration between jazz pianist Chick Corea and banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck. Full of soaring energy and technical prowess, The Enchantment blends the influences of both Corea and Fleck resulting in jazz compositions infused with bluegrass overtones.- WW
Recommended Tracks: “Mountain”, “Sunset Road”
James Otto, Sunset Man
On his breakthrough sophomore album, Otto’s voice is commanding and rich with soul, proving he has one of the most interesting male voices to come out of country music in the past few years. Sunset Man is a solid contemporary country album that has his voice melting just as effectively with bluesy, mid-tempo numbers as it does with muscular power ballads. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “For You”, “These Are The Good Ole Days”
Jon Randall, Walking Among the Living
Thanks to his very lucrative songwriting collaboration with Bill Anderson that resulted in a smash hit for Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss with “Whiskey Lullaby”, Jon Randall received a major label deal with Sony. Unfortunately, Randall’s only album with them was not even a blip on most people’s radars, though not due to lack of quality. Randall’s gorgeous tenor, most closely comparable to Vince Gill’s,tastefully blends with rootsy instrumentation and solid compositions to create a humble work of art. – LW
Recommended Tracks: “I Shouldn’t Do This”, “Lonely for Awhile”
Crooked Still, Shaken By a Low Sound
Crooked Still is an alternate bluegrass group led by vocalist Aoife O’Donovan. With haunting vocals and technical prowess Crooked Still pushes acoustic music in a manner similar to Nickel Creek but with a slightly more recognizable traditional bend. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “Wind and Rain”, “Little Sadie”
Miranda Lambert is a rare and fascinating case study of an artist who is able to push a significant number of records out the door, but is hard-pressed to receive equally significant radio airplay in return. While her first album, Kerosene, was certified Platinum and the follow up project, Crazy Ex Girlfriend, fared similarly well with Gold certification, she has only managed to squeak into radio’s top ten once with “Gunpowder And Lead.” On her third album, Revolution, it is entirely possible that Lambert has finally found a way to strike the tenuous balance of pleasing both critics and the general country music listening public with her album consisting of everything from sensitive ballads to rocked up, punk-flavored songs and a lot in between.
Not only does her impressive range of versatility sonically manifest itself, her depth of influences also appears by way of song contributions by people who aren’t just the usual suspects, but also dips into the pens of some highly esteemed Americana artists who aren’t typically covered by mainstream artists, as she did with songs from Gillian Welch and Patty Griffin on Crazy Ex Girlfriend. While there is a song that is co-written with the male members of Lady Antebellum and three co-writes with Blake Shelton, more interesting contributions are Fred Eaglesmith’s “Time to Get A Gun”, which is actually more relaxed than Eaglesmith’s manic rendering, Julie Miller’s “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go” that was rearranged with a punk vibe, and a lyrically watered down (with confusing changes) but sonically amped up version of John Prine’s “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round”. Additionally, she includes three songs written with Ashley Monroe, including the catchy “Me and Your Cigarrettes” (also written with Shelton), which Monroe sings on as well.
As was ever present in her previous albums, Lambert maintains a certain edge for which she is best known both in sound and lyrics. Songs like “Maintain the Pain” (with a guest appearance from Blake Shelton), “Time to Get A Gun”, “Sin for A Sin”, “White Liar” and “Only Prettier” display Lambert’s trademark tendency toward the attitudinal. While all these songs are noteworthy for various reasons, “Only Prettier” specifically taps into Lambert’s sardonic capabilities, which results in the most amusing song of the album. Using political jargon, she suggests that the high society crowd can get along with the less refined folks but ends up antagonistically concluding with the barb, “We’re just like you, only prettier.”
However, as is also often overlooked with Lambert’s music, there is certainly a more sensitive and introspective side that is actually more prevalent on Revolution than on her prior albums. In fact, “Makin’ Plans”, “The House That Built Me”, “Airstream Song” (her answer to Merle Haggard’s “The Way I Am”), and “Virginia Bluebell” can all be described as gorgeous. Incidentally, they are also the quieter tracks. Of these songs, the most thematically compelling is “The House that Built Me”, which is an unshakably touching tribute to the contribution of the childhood home and its accompanying memories. “If I could just come in, I swear I’ll leave/Won’t take nothin’ but a memory from the house that built me”, she promises the house’s current owner.
In this fifteen song set, Lambert does not merely rest on the comfort ability of her past album’s themes and productions. Instead, she reaches for growth and diversity. While she is not completely successful (mostly thanks to some heavy production choices), her attempts to stretch herself are largely positive and indicative of an artist who is mainstream but not afraid to stay true to her tasteful and eclectic roots. Moreover, Lambert continues and even improves upon her natural inclination toward quality songs, stellar vocals and intriguing productions. Hopefully, she will someday be truly rewarded for her artistic integrity by receiving airplay to match her sales.
With the gracious permission of Tom Spurgeon, the creator of this feature at The Comics Reporter, I would like to introduce the Country Universe version of “If I Were In _________, I’d Go To This.” With interesting events around the country it is hard to know about everything, so starting with “If I Were In New Hampshire, I’d Go To This” we will present you with our picks of unique or particularly interesting upcoming shows or events.
The Big Surprise Tour – featuring Old Crow Medicine Show, Dave Rawlings Machine (w/ Gillian Welch), The Felice Brothers and Justin Townes Earle – kicks off in Hampton, NH on Tuesday Aug. 4.
Born out of a deep running comradery built on countless tours and ties between a host of excellent musicians, each evening is sure to be a unique experience as they all put their many combined years of musicianship and knowledge of song-craft and American music into play for these performances.
This is gonna be an amazing show, so get your tickets now!
8/4 – Hampton Beach, NH @ Casino Ballroom
8/5 – Boston, MA @ House Of Blues
8/6 – New York, NY @ Beacon Theatre
8/7 – Philadelphia, PA @ Electric Factory
8/9 – Charlottesville, VA @ Charlottesville Pavilion
8/10 – Cary, NC @ Cary’s Booth Amphitheatre
8/12 – Louisville, KY @ Waterfront Park
8/13 – Nashville, TN @ Riverfront Park
8/14 – Knoxville, TN @ World’s Fair Park
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Interview emerging country music stars today and it may surprise you—especially if you listen to the radio—that they are all influenced by Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and (if they play mandolin) Bill Monroe. When you find that they also claim to emulate artists such as Garth Brooks, George Strait, Alan Jackson or whoever else has recently gone platinum (with the exception of the Dixie Chicks), it can be almost discouraging to consider that few are even that traditional.
This brings us to Sarah Jarosz, whose debut with Sugar Hill Records, Song Up in Her Head, presents a very different view of influences and a noticeably different performer in its eighteen year old co-producer.
Seven years ago, while requesting an autograph from Chris Thile, Sarah Jarosz, not yet a teenager, expressed interest in, someday, playing music with Chris Thile. Since then, she has added Darrell Scott, Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas, Aofie O’Donavan, and Abigail Washburn—all who appear on her album—to her most often quoted list of influences. As a result, we are presented with an impressive, but much less calculated list than one might expect from a newcomer. Given that these are some of my favorite artists, it also sets a high bar with this particular reviewer. Fortunately for this recent high school graduate who plays mandolin, guitar, clawhammer banjo, octave mandolin, piano, and toy piano (we will get to that) on her debut album, these lofty expectations are not beyond her ability.
Song Up in Her Head opens with its title track, a progressive bluegrass number that will remind listeners (in no small part to Chris Thile’s contribution) of progressive acoustic prodigies of the past. While those influences certainly exist, it would be a mistake to use them to typecast Jarosz, who has as much in common musically with Darrel Scott or Gillian Welch as she does with the progressive acoustic scene.
From the well-written “Tell me True,” which rolls comfortably upon tight lyrics and a repeating chorus, to “Left Home,” and impressive vocal number with the outstanding Aofie O’Donovan singing harmony vocals Jarosz more than establishes her songwriting credentials penning eleven of thirteen tracks on the album. Particularly notable is the balance between youth and maturity that seems to exist throughout these songs. Presenting the experiences of Sarah Jarosz, they only occasionally feel adolescent, always managing to escape the self-importance rampant among pop music acts her age. The finest example of this comes in “Broussard’s Lament,” a challenging song written in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that came out of “an interview on the Sunday morning news program “Meet the Press,” with a man named Aaron Broussard. His interview was heart wrenching, and it inspired me to write the tune.”
Inserted neatly between her songs are two well-chosen covers, Tom Waits “Come on Up to the House” and The Decemberists “Shankill Butchers.” While the Tom Waits cover is notable, “Shankill Butchers” excellent production makes it stand out. Using a toy piano along with Sarah’s compelling vocals, its mood ideally fits the modern nursery rhyme to the degree that it outshines the original recording.
Despite being an accomplished singer and mandolin player Sarah Jarosz does not go out of her way to list Bill Monroe as an influence—and the thing is she doesn’t have to. Unlike those pronouncing the influences that they feel they should have, with Song Up in Her Head you can hear influences being explored side by side with the effects of her colleagues close mentoring. Sarah Jarosz’ debut is delightfully distinct; supplementing her own talents with the best just-off-the-radar artists available today she has found a voice that will undoubtedly continue to produce eloquent music for another fifty years.