Rocketing to stardom in the aftermath of Hank Williams’ death, Webb Pierce became country music’s biggest superstar in the 1950’s, dominating the charts and establishing a flamboyant style that would become forever associated with traditional, honky-tonk country music.
Pierce grew up in Louisiana, cutting his teeth on Jimmie Rodgers records and already developing his own sound by his teenage years. At age fifteen, he already had a weekly radio show, performing his combination of the Cajun sounds of his home state and the Western Swing that was dominating country music at the time.
They would both go on to successful solo careers, but it was the music that Ira and Charlie Louvin made together that earned them a place in the annals of history.
Born in to Appalachian poverty, the Louvin Brothers began their public singing career by performing gospel standards at church. Their distinctive harmonies and instrumental skills soon earned them a spot on AM radio in Chattanooga. After Charlie did a brief tour with the Army, the duo moved to Knoxville, where their sound reached a wider audience.
By the late forties, the labels came calling. as did a publishing deal. The Louvins released a few moderately successful singles before Charlie was sent back overseas, but when he returned, the brothers began incorporating country into their repertoire, a move largely influenced by their appearances on the Opry. Throughout the fifties and early sixties, they released many of the most significant country compositions of all-time, including standards like the #1 hit “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby” and the top ten “Cash on the Barrelhead.”
They never abandoned their gospel roots, as reflected in a series of classic albums with a spiritual focus. One of their essential works was the LP Satan is Real, which became notorious for its vivid album artwork along with its music. The increasing popularity of rock and roll slowed down their success, which sadly led to an alcohol addiction for Ira, who was encouraged to drop his signature mandolin from their sound. His deterioration was the primary reason the duo disbanded in 1963.
Both brothers pursued solo careers, with Charlie forging out on his own and Ira performing with his new wife, Anne Young. Tragically, Ira and Anne were killed in an automobile accident in 1965, preventing a reconciliation of the brothers. Charlie proudly carried on the legacy of the Louvin Brothers, recording and performing right up until his death in 2011.
As years have gone by, the songs and recordings of the Louvin Brothers have become increasingly influential, shaping the sounds of the Byrds, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, and others. In 2002, a tribute album by contemporary country, bluegrass, and pop artists was a huge success, winning the Grammy for Best Country Album. Their sound lives on in the work of every duo built around harmony, from the Everly Brothers to the Judds, their songs have been covered by artists as diverse as James Taylor and Dolly Parton, and their themed albums with powerful artwork are regarded as essential classics by both musicians and graphic designers.
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
The story of Emmylou Harris is well established, the stuff of legend at this point.
She could’ve been Gram Parsons’ harmony singer for the rest of her career and been happy, but she ended up carrying on his legacy instead, becoming a Hall of Famer with the most consistently excellent catalog in country music history.
She’s addressed Parsons in song before, most directly with the grief-stricken classic “Boulder to Birmingham” from her 1975 classic Pieces of the Sky. Whereas that was a statement of heartbreak to a lost friend, “The Road” is a letter of gratitude, thanking him for starting her on a journey that she never would have embarked upon alone.
For future music historians, this song will be a goldmine. For listeners, it’s pretty good, too. Harris is a solid songwriter and her lyrics are closer to poetry than standard Nashville writing. Her voice is showing signs of wear, but much like on the later work of Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, that works to her advantage.
Is it as good as the best tracks on All I Intended to Be or Stumble Into Grace? Not quite, especially if you don’t know the back story and can’t fill in the gaps. But even very good Emmylou Harris is better than most of what’s out there today. Still, I hope the rest of her upcoming album is more than just very good Emmylou Harris.
Even though they never made it into heavy rotation on country radio, The Mavericks were still one of country music’s most lauded bands in the mid-nineties. The CMAs named them Vocal Group in both 1995 and 1996, and they won similar honors from the Grammys and the ACMs.
Despite not reaching the top ten with a single, they enjoyed a platinum-selling and a gold-selling album. In Canada, their albums continued to reach the gold threshold. “Dance the Night Away”, which barely dented the country chart in America, was a sizable hit in the United Kingdom. Lead singer Raul Malo has gone on to record several solo projects, along with producing other acts, including yesterday’s Six Pack featured artist Rick Trevino.
“What a Crying Shame”
from the 1994 album What a Crying Shame
Essentially their breakthrough hit, it found them ditching the political themes of their debut album for Orbison-channeling heartbreak instead.
“O What a Thrill”
from the 1994 album What a Crying Shame
A wonderfully romantic ballad that’s remarkably sophisticated.
“Here Comes the Rain”
from the 1995 album Music For All Occasions
They won a Grammy for this melancholy performance that perfected the formula introduced by “What a Crying Shame.”
“All You Ever Do is Bring Me Down”
from the 1995 album Music For All Occasions
Their first hit single to draw on the Latin influences that the band had in spades.
“Dance the Night Away”
from the 1998 album Trampoline
A big hit in Canada and an even bigger one in the United Kingdom, it’s one of those songs that too many Americans didn’t have a chance to hear.
“Hot Burrito #1”
from the 1999 album Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons
The band absolutely nails their entry in the multi-artist tribute to Gram Parsons.
He’s gone country, back to his roots.With Changing Horses, Ben Kweller shifts gears into a new groove, adding a touch of twang to his earnest tales of yearning. The Texas-bred bard, whose quirky pop has served as a guide to glory for the heartbroken, is now an Americana mystery in the spirit of Gram Parsons.
The shaggy-haired minstrel loves his Garth, but he sings and plays with a quiet hush that’s more Western wear than arena rock. Equal parts Cali folk and alt-pop, Changing Horses is proof that Nashville slick isn’t the only way to do country. His use of a whispering pedal steel is just the twinge of tradition to ground these hopeful hymns. Whether praising a woman’s virtuous way (“On Her Own”) or pining for romantic revival (“Wantin’ You Again”), Kweller leaves doubt in the dust, pressing on past old regrets towards new frontiers.
Kweller minds his manners, too. In a show of Southern hospitality, he thanks a hooker girlfriend for being such sweet company on the sad “Gypsy Rose.” Bless his ever-lovin’ heart.
The living embodiment of artistic integrity, Emmylou Harris has been creating acclaimed music for more than three decades, building up the most consistent catalog in the history of country music. In her early days, her mix of contemporary songs and classic country songs was seen as forward-thinking and progressive, but over time, she would be seen as a protective guardian of country music’s heritage, even when she strayed far away from it on her own recordings.
Her own roots were not in country music, as she was an aspiring folk artist in her early days. While she was also interested in drama, she was increasingly drawn to the folk songs of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, eventually leaving college and moving to New York in 1968. However, the folk scene was beginning to die down, and though she found occasional work, it wasn’t much. She married in 1969, and worked as a waitress to supplement the meager income brought in by her Greenwich Village coffeehouse performances.
In 1970, she recorded her debut album, Gliding Bird, for the struggling independent label Jubilee Records, which folded shortly thereafter. Harris would later call the album a disaster, and disowned it so much that she named her fourteenth studio album Thirteen. Disenchanted with the New York scene, and her first marriage coming to an end, she moved to Nashville briefly, but then relocated to her parents’ home in Maryland, feeling disconnected from music until she discovered the music scene in Washington D.C., through which she would met a young performer named Gram Parsons.