Could there possibly be a more emotionally and sentimentally charged record released this year?
A heartfelt tribute to the departed George Jones that celebrates his incredible legacy of music, “Tonight I’m Playin’ Possum” is pure catnip for country music lovers. More than just a list of nicknames for the Possum and shout-outs for some of his best songs, the reverence is coupled with relevance for his signature sound.
Randy Travis and Joe Nichols represent two successive generations that were shaped by Jones’ influence, and they weren’t even among the first generation of artists to be shaped by his work. “Tonight I’m Playin’ Possum” makes the case for Jones’ immortality, with his voice living on in heaven while it still plays down here in every lonely jukebox joint.
All that would’ve been enough to pull on the heartstrings. But then, Travis nearly joined Jones in immortality this summer, a stunning and frightening turn of events that makes this record all the more painful to listen to. Much like Jones on his final recordings, time and hard living have weathered Randy’s voice to the point that it’s nearly unrecognizable. It wasn’t until Joe Nichols piped in that I was sure it was Randy Travis that started off the song.
We lionize our legends and our icons. Their accomplishments on records seem almost superhuman, a byproduct of artists in their prime being captured for timeless posterity. Sometimes, a tragedy happens that freezes a Patsy Cline or a Hank Williams in that moment forever. More often, we have to watch these wondrous talents slowly drift toward their own mortality, as more notes fade out of reach and even the greatest stylists start to lose their distinctive style.
It’s painful. I want more Randy Travis records, just like I want more of the George Jones records that will never come. Time can keep running for a long time, but it always runs out in the end.
“Tonight I’m Playin’ Possum” is such an amazing tribute to Jones. I wish that listening to it didn’t make me feel so sad.
The ultimate icon of Southern country rock, Hank Williams Jr. emerged from the long, influential shadow of his father to become one of the genre's most distinctive personalities.
Born in 1949, Hank Jr. was only a toddler when his father died. As the namesake of the legendary Hank Williams, his early career consisted of Hank Jr. carefully following his father's footsteps, covering his material and even dressing like him for performances at the tender age of eight.
He found moderate success throughout the sixties and early seventies, and as his songwriting talent grew, he slowly began to develop his own unique style. Still, he was little more than a B-list traditional country singer, making a lot of good music and having reasonably popular hits. Alcoholism was slowing him down, and after getting a handle on his addiction, he began to incorporate Southern rock sounds into his country music.
Just as his signature style was emerging, tragedy struck when he suffered a terrible fall while mountain climbing in Montana. After a long and difficult recovery, Williams returned with new purpose, and found his commercial breakthrough when he teamed up with producer Jimmy Bowen. In 1979, he released two signature hits. “Family Tradition” managed to exercise the demons of living in his father's shadow while simultaneously popularizing the sound that would help him escape it. “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound” lay down the template for his most powerful material.
Thus kicked off a decade where Williams Jr. would reach astonishing heights of popularity, with records selling in the millions, singles regularly topping the charts, and even becoming one of the genre's first successful music video artists. In 1987 and 1988, he was named the CMA Entertainer of the Year, the culmination of his rise to superstardom.
He became widely known beyond the country music field with his popular themes for Monday Night Football, which earned him Emmy awards to go alongside his music industry statuettes. His radio success faded in the nineties, but his popularity on the road and in popular culture hasn't subsided, though these days he's more likely to be found on Fox News than CMT, with his conservative and often inflammatory views continuing to garner notice outside the country music world.
Regardless of his notoriety in other fields, in the end, he'll be remembered for his body of work. As arguably the most significant second generation talent in country music history, Hank Williams Jr.'s legacy is secured.
Eleven Roses, 1972
Family Tradition, 1979
Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound, 1979
All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down), 1981
A Country Boy Can Survive, 1982
Born to Boogie, 1987
There's a Tear in My Beer (with Hank Williams), 1989
It's hard not to root for Chris Young. He can really sing and his music would sound identifiably country if it was released twenty years ago, making it sound like Hank Williams in comparison to what's passing for it these days.
But he's got to pay the bills, I guess. “Aw Naw” is a typical 2013 country party song that is easier to tolerate than most of the others because it's sung really well and at least sounds like it's been written and
Now, even the greatest country artists pandered to the trends of the times. Check out the hillbilly humor tracks that even Alan Jackson and Pam Tillis recorded in the nineties, or the string-drenched crossover pap that even George Jones and Loretta Lynn succumbed to when Nashville went uptown in the seventies and eighties.
Those songs don't make their way to the essential collections that surface when a great act's radio days are done. Hopefully, this one won't make it to Chris Young's when his time comes.
Written by Chris DeStefano, Ashley Gorley and Chris Young
The comfortingly reliable George Strait mixes it up a bit during his 1992-1993 run of singles with a cover of a beloved classic, hardcore country, a surprising country rocker, and a sweet love song for good measure.
Strait ably tackles the Hank Williams classic. He doesn't surpass the original, but it's cool that he brought the song back in 1992. Imagine if somebody tried to do that now.
This downbeat single finds a man searching for answers for why is lady is leaving him and he knows he'll find it from the example of his dad, because he's so much like him. In a clever twist, however, he doesn't ask his dad, but rather, asks his mom: “But if I'm so much like my dad, there must've been times you felt her way. So, tell me word for word what he said that always made you stay.”
It's always seemed counterintuitive for a song that begins with “When you hear twin fiddles and a steel guitar” to rock as hard as this song does, but the fact is that it's as catchy and infectious as all get-out, so almost all is forgiven.
I would have liked to have been listening to country music when this song was released as a single, as I'm sure it would have surprised me to hear Strait singing something sounding quite like this. The song promoting the dissolution of a relationship with no regrets is country, with a little groove and an over all chill vibe.
This song, however, portrays a lost relationship rife with regret. Strait's performance, supported by strains of lonely steel, fully captures the pain of losing a good love due to one's own negligence.
Various Artists KIN: Songs by Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell
A collection of songs written by industry veteran Rodney Crowell along with bestselling author and poet Mary Karr, recorded by a who’s who of country and Americana music greats. It should be enough to set the mouth of many a roots music aficiando watering.
The very concept behind the album places the emphasis squarely on the songwriting – an approach that is flawlessly adhered to by Joe Henry’s ace cialis no prescription needed quick delivery production job. The twangy, stripped-down arrangements stay entirely out of the way of the songs, often reverently nodding to the conventions of traditional country music. It doesn’t feel so much as a rote exercise in throwback neotraditionalism, but more so as a style that simply feels timeless and ageless on its own merits, untainted by production trends that might tie it to a particular era.
In large part, what’s impressive about this album is that, despite the eclectic line-up of participating artists, KIN doesn’t feel like a potluck project of songs randomly thrown together. It really does feel like an album, with each track serving as a part of a cohesive whole, bound together by recurring themes of family and rural small town life. Karr’s liner notes reveal that for song inspiration, she and Crowell drew heavily upon their own youthful experiences, having come from very similar upbringings despite not having grown up together. However, the treatment of such topics is hardly lily-white, with family homes often sporting bullet holes and reeking of alcohol.
Crowell himself steps up to the mic on four of the albums ten tracks, sharing it with Kris Kristofferson on the standout duet “My Father’s Advice,” which boasts an infectious melody and fiddle hook. While country radio often favors the proverbial “old man’s advice” song, “My Father’s Advice” rises above the often cliché-laden mainstream treatment of such subject matter by creating a believable, three-dimensional character sketch of the narrator’s father – realistically imperfect, but deeply devoted to rearing his son in the right way, with Kristofferson giving voice to the father figure of Crowell’s narrator. Crowell’s other vocal turns include the noncharting single “I’m a Mess,” along with album opener “Anything But Tame,” a wistful meditation on the course taken by a childhood friendship.
The contributions of the participating artists are no less stellar. Having built a career as a mainstream country artist with a moderate neotraditionalist bent, Lee Ann Womack has never sounded better than when paired with a fiddle-drenched pure country arrangement. A jaunty tempo and dobro hook bely the dark lyric as Womack sings from the perspective of a child witnessing the dissolution of her alcoholic parents’ marriage on album standout “Momma’s On a Roll.” In keeping with the family theme, the camaraderie of sisterhood is explored with “Sister Oh Sister,” which Crowell’s ex-wife Rosanne Cash renders with deep sincerity. Vince Gill’s sweet tenor absolutely soars when paired with the stone cold throwback arrangement of “Just Pleasing You” – a traditional country gem that wouldn’t sound out of the place in the legendary Hank Williams catalog. Lucinda Williams sounds downright desperate in her delivery of the aching ballad “God I’m Missing You,” while Norah Jones turns in a delightfully wry take on “If the Law Don’t Want You” – a witty tune inspired by Mary Karr’s teenage years. Times past have attested to the fact that no Rodney Crowell song can hope for a finer vocal medium than the incomparable Emmylou Harris, who delivers the haunting “Long Time Girl Gone By” in an earthy whisper of a performance.
Crowell closes out the set with “Hungry For Home,” a charming detail-laden lyric that encapsulates the warmth and comfort of one’s home – something that can be found even in a home long beset with family strife. It’s a fitting conclusion to the album as a whole, showing that – despite the hardships Karr and Crowell both dealt with in their respective upbringings on into adult life – they clearly retain a deep appreciation for the experiences that have shaped them as individuals. “It was like we’d grown up next door in a hellacious place – the anus of the universe, my mother always called it,” writes Karr. “But we adored those characters and their language – we’d never choose elsewhere.”
Considering that country music has long been a primarily singles-oriented format, it’s refreshing to see such a fine realization of the album as an art form. Though each individual piece is captivating in itself, KIN remains an album best heard in its entirety, with hardly a weak track to be found. The entire project radiates authenticity, as Karr and Crowell essentially hand over their respective family photo albums for music lovers to leaf through, making KIN feel very much like a memoir set to music. One would certainly hope that Karr and Crowell continue to write excellent songs together, and that the results will be at least half as rewarding as they are on this fine album.
Marty Stuart Nashville, Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down
The casual listener may remember Marty Stuart for the string of country radio hits he enjoyed in the late eighties and early nineties. However, Stuart’s legacy was cemented by groundbreaking projects released after his commercial heyday had drawn to a close, particularly 1999's landmark The Pilgrim as well as 2010's career-best effort Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions. Through such critically lauded work Stuart has built up a reputation as an elder statesman of country music, acting to preserve country music's heritage and traditions, while simultaneously working to move the genre forward.
One important reason why Stuart has been such a fine advocate of traditional country music is that he does not treat it as a musical museum piece, but rather treats it as it is – as real and relevant now as it has ever been. This is continually evident on Stuart’s new Sugar Hill release Nashville, Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down. The project finds Stuart graciously and sincerely paying tribute to country music’s storied past, at times through well-chosen cover songs. He offers his own rendition of the Jerry Chestnutt composition “Holding On to Nothin,” which was a Top 10 hit for Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton in 1968. The song’s brilliantly constructed lyric finds a couple’s desire to rekindle their romance colliding with the sad realization that there is little left to save. “I feel guilty when they envy me and you” is arguably one of the best lines a country song has ever come up with.
But while the album respectfully nods to the past, the loose infectious energy of up-tempo tracks like “Tear the Woodpile Down” and “Truck Driver Blues” is hardly derivative, adding to the project’s contemporary edge. The latter finds Stuart both shredding the mandolin, and name-dropping wife Connie Smith. The album also offers a more restrained reinterpretation of one song that previously appeared on Stuart’s 2003 effort Country Music, and “Sundown In Nashville” is a song that is most definitely worthy of a repeat release. The lyric highlights the sad truth that for every performer who achieves the dream of becoming a country music star, countless others see their dreams “shattered and swept to the outskirts of town” – a sentiment that has remained of continued relevance on down through country music history.
On Tear the Woodpile Down, Stuart continues to indulge his penchant for collaborating with his like-minded friends. Sadly, the list of collaborators does not include Connie Smith this time around, but the harmony vocals of The Carter Family descendant Lorrie Carter Bennett add a bittersweet touch to the beautiful steel weeper “A Song of Sadness,” while veteran guitarist and Jerry Lee Lewis-collaborator Kenny Lovelace appears on “A Matter of Time.” The album closes on a high note with the Hank Williams III duet “Picture from Life’s Other Side” – a song originally written and recorded by Hank Williams, Sr., and one that Stuart and Hank III have performed together live. Stuart’s smooth vocal delivery contrasts nicely with Hank III’s gritty drawl. The two are backed by a bare-boned acoustic arrangement, allowing the song itself to pull the full weight with its brilliantly dark take on human mortality. While backed by his seasoned cohorts The Fabulous Superlatives – who get to twang it out on the rousing instrumental track “Hollywood Boogie” – the project also includes appearances by veteran steel player Robbie Turner, as well as multi-instrumentalist Buck Trent, who lends his banjo work to the comedic title track and to “Holding On to Nothin’.” Such contributions aid in making Tear the Woodpile Down an endlessly cool-sounding record.
In classic Marty Stuart fashion, Nashville, Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down shines with stellar, classic-worthy songwriting, bolstered by top-notch musicianship and restlessly creative arrangements. It ranks as one of 2012’s best album’s yet – a thoughtful homage to country music's past that remains fully connected to the present, and one that will thoroughly satisfy any passionate devotee of pure, simple, non-hyphenated country music.
After having first formed in 2003, The Little Willies released their self-titled debut album in 2006, four years after pianist and vocalist Norah Jones had found success with her jazz and pop flavored solo album Come Away With Me.
Six years later, a second Little Willies album finally comes to light, following in the tradition of the first by featuring covers of country classics. For the Good Times finds The Little Willies covering classics songs by some of country music’s most revered (and most covered) artists, including nods to Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton, among others.
The heart and soul of the project, however, is The Little Willies themselves. Much like the band’s previous effort, For the Good Times is unmistakably a group effort. Norah Jones and Richard Julien share lead vocal duties, while generous instrumental breaks give all five members – rounded out by Jim Campilongo on guitar, Lee Alexander on bass, and Dan Rieser on drums – ample room to shine.
If there is a noteworthy complaint to be leveled against the album, it is that its approach to selecting cover material is mostly by the book, in that it often leans on predictable choices that have been covered endlessly. In particular, Parton’s “Jolene” is one of the most covered songs by an artist whose catalog is ripe with hidden treasures waiting to be discovered, which is not to say that Jones does not sing it beautifully. Fortunately, the Willies have a strong knack for re-interpreting cover material in a way that feels respectful and reverent, but not overly so, and not to the point of becoming half-hearted re-creations of the originals. Thanks to creative, organic arrangements, they repeatedly clear the lofty bar of taking a well-known song, and making it seem new again.
One of the album’s best tracks is the surprisingly good cover of Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City.” Fact: Loretta Lynn is a hard one to cover. Her distinct persona and vocal style are so familiar that many artists have fallen into the trap of misguided mimicry – Just ask Sheryl Crow. But as it turns out, Jones acquits herself nicely by giving a performance that is true to her own vocal style, but that still conveys the sharp sass that the tell-it-like-it-is lyric calls for – She has never sounded feistier. Likewise, the band reworks the song into a two-stepping arrangement that serves it well, while still retaining its signature instrumental hook.
Elsewhere, there’s hardly a dull spot to be found on the record. Jones’ spirited performance of Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time” is unshakably joyful, as is Julien’s take on Cash’s “Wide Open Road.” On a much different note, Jones’ and Julien’s half-singing, half-whispering performance of “Foul Owl On the Prowl” makes for a deliciously haunting mood-breaker. A slowed-down rendering of Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues,” as well as a hushed performance of the Kristofferson-penned Ray Price hit that serves as the title track, demonstrate the band’s wise focus on putting the songs themselves above all else. No matter which creative direction the band goes in with the songs they cover, their treatments never come across as gaudy or misguided, nor do they place the singer ahead of the song, but they consistently retain the emotional aspects of the originals.
The instrumental “Tommy Rockwood,” written by Campilongo, is a welcome addition, demonstrating that the The Little Willies are just as competent when cutting loose on an original song as when delivering a well-thought-out cover. Ultimately, it’s the band’s palpable, infectious enthusiasm for these tunes that makes the record tick. Despite some missed opportunities with regard to song selection, there is still no denying that what’s here is consistently well-executed, such that any lover of traditional country music will find Good Times to be a highly enjoyable listen.
If you’re looking for a genuinely spooky song for the Halloween season, look no further than Alan Jackson’s chilling “Midnight in Montgomery.”
From the very first strains of the downbeat acoustic guitar followed by the eerie steel intro, it’s evident that this is no typical country love song or drinking ditty. Instead, it’s set at Hank Williams’ grave at midnight whereupon the narrator, presumably Alan Jackson, sees Hank’s ghost.
The song’s story is fascinating in and of itself, but equally impressive is the recording as a whole package. Along with the ominous production and chilling story, Jackson’s performance strays from its usual smooth reliability and picks up its own haunting quality, which perfectly adds to the overall darkness of the song.
What’s more, much like a Hitchcock thriller, the parts of the song that capture this compositional masterpiece is not violence and blood, but rather, masterful storytelling that is thanks to the lyrics, production and performance that forms a psychologically thrilling listening experience rarely captured in country music.
My freshmen girls choir performed this song at our high school spring show ten years ago. The photos of me in a tacky red bandana halter top are painful, but the memories of my first taste of high school choir are precious.
Our high school tradition was to rewrite a famous song to fit the occasion. Nineties Manhattan hipsters that we were, we went eighties and the graduation song was “We’re Almost Graduated”, to the tune of the Ramones classic.
Our mascot was Karate Squid. We thought we were cool.
Because it’s one of the only songs I can reliably conjure up out of the blue of my memory, it’s been a campfire singalong staple at all two of the camping trips I’ve taken in my adult life. Camping trips are the best.
He didn’t always top the charts or win the big awards, but Gene Watson’s legacy of traditional country music made him one of the most respected vocalists of his generation.
Born and raised in Texas, he grew up fully immersed in Western swing, southern blues, and gospel music. By age twelve, he’d made his first public performance. Never liking school, he dropped out in ninth grade. He chose auto body repair as his career, but did music on the side at night, more as a hobby than anything else.
While singing one night in Houston, he caught the attention of the Wilburn Brothers. They invited him to do some shows with him, and soon secured him an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, where his performance of the Hank Williams classic “I Can’t Help it (If I’m Still in Love With You)” earned a standing ovation.
Soon, the young artist had signed with Capitol Records, the first of four successful major label stints that would produced nearly two dozen top ten hits. His big breakthrough was the steamy “Love in the Hot Afternoon” in 1975, and before he moved over to MCA in 1981, he’d released some of his biggest hits, including his signature tune, “Farewell Party”, which went to #5 in 1979.
His strongest run at radio kicked off with the lead single from his second MCA album, “Fourteen Carat Mind.” It became his only #1 hit in early 1982, but he scored several more big hits over the next three years, just missing the top spot again with “You’re Out Doing What I’m Here Doing Without.”
Switching labels again to Epic in 1985, the hits became less frequent. “Memories to Burn” went to #5, but the rest of his songs peaked outside of the top ten until he switched to Warner Brothers in 1988. Again, his first single for the label was a hit. Peaking at #5 in early 1989, “Don’t Waste it On the Blues” was his swan song at country radio, which mostly ignored his output from that point on.
In the nineties, Watson remained on the music scene, recording for several independent labels. The most successful partnership was with Step One, which produced a minor hit with “Change Her Mind” in 1997. In the years since, Watson has released additional studio albums, most notably the critically acclaimed In a Perfect World in 2007. Like many stars of his time, he remains a popular live performer, touring recently with Rhonda Vincent.
Love in the Hot Afternoon, 1975
Paper Rosie, 1977
Farewell Party, 1979
Should I Come Home (Or Should I Go Crazy), 1979
Fourteen Carat Mind, 1981
You’re Out Doing What I’m Here Doing Without, 1983