Tag Archives: Hank Williams

Album Review: Marty Stuart, <i>Nashville, Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down</i>

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.

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Album Review: The Little Willies, For the Good Times

The Little Willies
For the Good Times

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.

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Retro Single Review: Alan Jackson, “Midnight in Montgomery”

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.

Written by Alan Jackson and Don Sampson

Grade: A

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The 30 Day Song Challenge: Day 7

Today’s category is…

A Song That Reminds You of a Certain Event.

The staff picks are:

Tara Seetharam: “I Will…But” – SHeDaisy

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.

Kevin Coyne: “I Wanna Be Sedated” – The Ramones

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.

Leeann Ward: “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” – Alan Jackson

This is an obvious choice, but I can’t think of another song that has captured how I felt regarding an event better than this one does, right down to the “I Love Lucy reruns.”

Dan Milliken: “Your Cheatin’ Heart” – Hank Williams

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.

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100 Greatest Men: #92. Gene Watson

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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.

Essential Singles:

  • 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
  • Memories to Burn, 1985

Essential Albums:

  • Love in the Hot Afternoon, 1975
  • Because You Believed in Me, 1976
  • Beautiful Country, 1978
  • This Dream’s on Me, 1982
  • Sometimes I Get Lucky, 1983
  • In a Perfect World, 2007

Next: #91. Diamond Rio

Previous:  #93. Vernon Dalhart

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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ACM Flashback: Single Record of the Year

As with the similar CMA category of Single of the Year, looking over the history of this category is the quickest way to get a snapshot of country music in a given year.  There is a quite a bt of consensus among the two organizations here, and it is very rare for the winner at one show to not at least be nominated at the other. The winners list here would make a great 2-disc set of country classics, at least for those who don’t mind a little pop in their country. The ACM definitely has more of a taste for crossover than its CMA counterpart, and the organizations have only agreed on 17 singles in the past four decades and change.

As always, we start with a look at this year’s nominees and work our way back to 1968.

2010

  • Zac Brown Band, “Toes”
  • Billy Currington, “People Are Crazy”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
  • Miranda Lambert, “White Liar”
  • David Nail, “Red Light”

There’s usually a “Huh?” nominee among the ACM list in recent years.  This year, it’s David Nail.  Good for him!  Currington hasn’t won yet for this hit, even though he got himself a Grammy nomination for it.  With Lady Antebellum reaching the upper ranks of the country and pop charts with “Need You Now”, my guess is that they’re the presumptive favorites. Then again, Miranda Lambert is a nominee for the third straight year, and she’s up for her biggest radio hit.

2009

  • Trace Adkins, “You’re Gonna Miss This”
  • Jamey Johnson, “In Color”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Gunpowder & Lead”
  • Heidi Newfield, “Johnny and June”
  • Brad Paisley, “Waitin’ On a Woman”

Adkins has been a fairly regular fixture on country radio since 1996, but this was his first major industry award.  He also won the ACM for Top New Male Vocalist in 1997.

2008

  • Gary Allan, “Watching Airplanes”
  • Big & Rich, “Lost in This Moment”
  • Kenny Chesney, “Don’t Blink”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Famous in a Small Town”
  • Sugarland, “Stay”

“Stay” swept the Song of the Year categories at all three industry shows, along with winning the ACM for Single Record.  Allan’s presence here shows that being a little West Coast can still help a guy at the ACMs.

2007

  • Heartland, “I Loved Her First”
  • Rascal Flatts, “What Hurts the Most”
  • George Strait, “Give it Away”
  • Josh Turner, “Would You Go With Me”
  • Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats”

George Strait earned his second ACM Single Record award a decade after his first (“Check Yes or No”) and two and a half decades after having his first radio hit.  Underwood won at the CMAs later that year.  “Give it Away” is one of a small group of ACM winners to not receive a nomination at the CMA ceremony.

2006

  • Gary Allan, “Best I Ever Had”
  • Brooks & Dunn, “Believe”
  • Brad Paisley, “Alcohol”
  • Sugarland, “Baby Girl”
  • Carrie Underwood, “Jesus, Take the Wheel”

In the battle of biblical hits, the CMA picked Brooks & Dunn but the ACM picked Carrie Underwood.  Much like George Strait would later win a CMA trophy for a different single (“I Saw God Today”), Underwood later triumphed at the CMA with “Before He Cheats.”

2005

  • Tim McGraw, “Live Like You Were Dying”
  • Brad Paisley with Alison Krauss, “Whiskey Lullaby”
  • Rascal Flatts, “Bless the Broken Road”
  • Keith Urban, “Days Go By”
  • Gretchen Wilson, “Redneck Woman”
  • Lee Ann Womack, “I May Hate Myself in the Morning”

Because McGraw picked up the trophy at the CMAs in 2004, the field was cleared for Womack to win the CMA later in 2005.  McGraw had won the ACM before for “It’s Your Love.”

2004

  • Brooks & Dunn, “Red Dirt Road”
  • Alan Jackson with Jimmy Buffett, “It’s Five O’ Clock Somewhere”
  • Alan Jackson, “Remember When”
  • Toby Keith, “American Soldier”
  • Randy Travis, “Three Wooden Crosses”

Among all the lead nominees, only Toby Keith wasn’t a previous winner. Still, the award went to the new alcoholic’s creed, winning over a more pensive Jackson track and a big comeback hit for Randy Travis.

2003

  • Kenny Chesney, “The Good Stuff”
  • Toby Keith, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)”
  • Trick Pony, “Just What I Do”
  • Keith Urban, “Somebody Like You”
  • Mark Wills, “19 Somethin'”

Chesney spent nearly two months at #1 with this hit, perhaps giving him the edge over the other mega-hits at radio from Keith, Urban, and Wills. As for the Trick Pony nomination, somebody really should find out what Heidi Newfield has on those ACM voters.

2002

  • Brooks & Dunn, “Ain’t Nothin’ ‘Bout You”
  • Diamond Rio, “One More Day”
  • Alan Jackson, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”
  • Toby Keith, “I Wanna Talk About Me”
  • Travis Tritt, “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive”

Jackson’s powerful 9/11 reflection stands out as the only ballad among his four ACM Single Record victories.

2001

  • Toby Keith, “How Do You Like Me Now?!”
  • John Michael Montgomery, “The Little Girl”
  • Jamie O’Neal, “There is No Arizona”
  • Aaron Tippin, “Kiss This”
  • Lee Ann Womack with Sons of the Desert, “I Hope You Dance”

Toby Keith’s run of four consecutive nominations began this year. His album of the same name proved victorious that evening.  Womack’s massive hit became an instant standard, and is incidentally the most recent winner to also be a genuine crossover hit.

2000

  • Dixie Chicks, “Ready to Run”
  • Lonestar, “Amazed”
  • Tim McGraw, “Please Remember Me”
  • Brad Paisley, “He Didn’t Have to Be”
  • George Strait, “Write This Down”

As pop hits go, this one was a monster. “Amazed” even topped the Hot 100, the first country single to do so since “Islands in the Stream.”

1999

  • Faith Hill, “This Kiss”
  • Martina McBride, “A Broken Wing”
  • Shania Twain, “You’re Still the One”
  • Steve Wariner, “Holes in the Floor of Heaven”
  • The Wilkinsons, “26 Cents”

Hill and hubby Tim McGraw each have two ACM trophies in this category, one solo and one shared.

1998

  • Diamond Rio, “How Your Love Makes Me Feel”
  • Tim McGraw with Faith Hill, “It’s Your Love”
  • LeAnn Rimes, “How Do I Live”
  • George Strait, “Carrying Your Love With Me”
  • Trisha Yearwood, “How Do I Live (from “Con Air”)”

While Yearwood had won over Rimes at the Grammys a few weeks earlier, the ACM sidestepped the big controversy of the year and gave the trophy to the biggest hit in the bunch.

1997

  • Brooks & Dunn, “My Maria”
  • Deana Carter, “Strawberry Wine”
  • Tracy Lawrence, “Time Marches On”
  • LeAnn Rimes, “Blue”
  • George Strait, “Carried Away”

It’s rare that the ACM goes with the song that was least successful at radio, but don’t let that #10 peak of “Blue” fool you.  That hit was responsible for millions of record sales.

1996

  • Brooks & Dunn, “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone”
  • Faith Hill, “It Matters to Me”
  • Tim McGraw, “I Like It, I Love It”
  • George Strait, “Check Yes or No”
  • Shania Twain, “Any Man of Mine”

It was a stroke of marketing brilliance: add two singles to a box set of a genre superstar. When the first single became one of his biggest hits, the box set quickly became the top selling in country music history.

1995

  • Joe Diffie, “Third Rock From the Sun”
  • Vince Gill, “Tryin’ to Get Over You”
  • Alan Jackson, “Livin’ On Love”
  • Tim McGraw, “Don’t Take the Girl”
  • John Michael Montgomery, “I Swear”

There have been a few wedding standards to win this award, though Montgomery’s hit didn’t cross over in its original form.

1994

  • Clint Black with Wynonna, “A Bad Goodbye”
  • Garth Brooks, “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up)”
  • Alan Jackson, “Chattahoochee”
  • Reba McEntire with Linda Davis, “Does He Love You”
  • Dwight Yoakam, “Ain’t That Lonely Yet”

Jackson won the ACM with his massive hit, but the McEntire/Davis duet and the Yoakam track were Grammy winners.

1993

  • John Anderson, “Straight Tequila Night”
  • Brooks & Dunn, “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”
  • Billy Ray Cyrus, “Achy Breaky Heart”
  • Collin Raye, “Love, Me”
  • Tanya Tucker, “Two Sparrows in a Hurricane”

Brooks & Dunn are among the most nominated artists in this category’s history, but this is their only victory.

1992

  • Clint Black, “Where Are You Now”
  • Garth Brooks, “Shameless”
  • Alan Jackson, “Don’t Rock the Jukebox”
  • Travis Tritt, “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)”
  • Trisha Yearwood, “She’s in Love With the Boy”

This was Jackson’s first major industry award.

1991

  • Alabama, “Jukebox in My Mind”
  • Garth Brooks, “Friends in Low Places”
  • Vince Gill, “When I Call Your Name”
  • Alan Jackson, “Here in the Real World”
  • Shenandoah, “Next to You, Next to Me”

Garth-mania was beginning to peak in 1991. He swept the ACMs that  year.

1990

  • Clint Black, “Better Man”
  • Garth Brooks, “If Tomorrow Never Comes”
  • Patty Loveless, “Timber I’m Falling in Love”
  • Keith Whitley, “I’m No Stranger to the Rain”
  • Hank Williams & Hank Williams Jr., “There’s a Tear in My Beer”

Clint Black is one of only three artists in the last twenty years to win for their first proper single, with Carrie Underwood and LeAnn Rimes being the other two.

1989

  • Kathy Mattea, “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses”
  • K.T. Oslin, “I’ll Always Come Back”
  • Ricky Van Shelton, “I’ll Leave This World Loving You”
  • Randy Travis, “I Told You So”
  • Keith Whitley, “Don’t Close Your Eyes”

Mattea’s award-winning hit had such a high profile that it was even referenced in the dialog of the hit movie Rain Man.

1988

  • Restless Heart, “I’ll Still Be Loving You”
  • Ricky Van Shelton, “Somebody Lied”
  • George Strait, “All My Ex’s Live in Texas”
  • Randy Travis, “Forever and Ever, Amen”
  • Hank Williams Jr., “Born to Boogie”

Travis won for the second year in a row with what would become his signature hit.

1987

  • Alabama, “Touch Me When We’re Dancing”
  • Janie Fricke, “Always Have, Always Will”
  • The Judds, “Rockin’ With the Rhythm of the Rain”
  • Reba McEntire, “Whoever’s in New England”
  • Randy Travis, “On the Other Hand”

This was technically his first single, but when released under the name Randy Traywick, it bombed. Warner Bros. then released “1982” under Randy Travis, and it went top ten. They then re-released this song, and it became his first #1 hit.

1986

  • Lee Greenwood, “Dixie Road”
  • Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, “Highwayman”
  • The Judds, “Love is Alive”
  • Mel McDaniel, “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On”
  • Hank Williams Jr., “I’m For Love”

So successful was this winning single that the four legends would go on to release future collaborations as the Highwaymen.

1985

  • Alabama, “When We Make Love”
  • Julio Iglesias & Willie Nelson, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”
  • The Judds, “Why Not Me”
  • John Schneider, “I’ve Been Around Enough to Know”
  • Conway Twitty, “I Don’t Know a Thing About Love (The Moon Song)”

Say what you want about this winner, but it was popular enough to sell two million 45s.

1984

  • John Anderson, “Swingin'”
  • Anne Murray, “A Little Good News”
  • Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard, “Pancho  and Lefty”
  • Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton, “Islands in the Stream”
  • Shelly West, “José Cuervo”

Another pop smash that moved two million 45s. Is there anybody over 30 who can’t sing along to the chorus?

1983

  • David Frizzell, “I’m Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home”
  • Willie Nelson, “Always on My Mind”
  • Kenny Rogers, “Love Will Turn You Around”
  • Ricky Skaggs, “Crying My Heart Out Over You”
  • Sylvia, “Nobody”

Nelson’s had quite a few signature hits, but none bigger than this one.

1982

  • Rosanne Cash, “Seven Year Ache”
  • David Frizzell & Shelly West, “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma”
  • Barbara Mandrell, “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”
  • Ronnie Milsap, “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me”
  • Oak Ridge Boys, “Elvira”

This might be the most pop-flavored lineup in category’s history. Even the Mandrell hit doth protest too much.

1981

  • George Jones, “He Stopped Loving Her Today”
  • Johnny Lee, “Lookin’ For Love”
  • Dolly Parton, “9 to 5″
  • Eddie Rabbitt, “Drivin’ My Life Away”
  • Don Williams, “I Believe in You”

Jones capped his biggest comeback in a career defined by them with several awards for this classic hit.

1980

  • Charlie Daniels Band, “Devil Went Down to Georgia”
  • Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers Band, “All the Gold in California”
  • Crystal Gayle, “Half the Way”
  • Waylon Jennings, “Amanda”
  • Kenny Rogers, “Coward of the County”

West Coast represent!

1979

  • Crystal Gayle, “Talking in Your Sleep”
  • Loretta Lynn, “Out of My Head and Back in My Bed”
  • Willie Nelson, “Georgia On My Mind”
  • Waylon & Willie, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys”
  • Don Williams, “Tulsa Time”

In a category of superstars, the Gentle Giant of Country Music was the victor.

1978

  • Debby Boone, “You Light Up My Life”
  • Crystal Gayle, “Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue”
  • Waylon Jennings, “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)”
  • Kenny Rogers, “Lucille”
  • Linda Ronstadt, “Blue Bayou”

All of these records made a big impact on both the country and the pop chart.

1977

  • Mickey Gilley, “Bring it On Home to Me”
  • Loretta Lynn, “Somebody Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missin’ Tonight)”
  • Marty Robbins, “El Paso City”
  • Red Sovine, “Teddy Bear”
  • Waylon & Willie, “Good Hearted Woman”

A surprising win, perhaps fueled by the momentum of Gilley’s previous single, “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time.”

1976

  • Glen Campbell, “Rhinestone Cowboy”
  • Freddie Fender, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls”
  • Mickey Gilley, “Overnight Sensation”
  • Willie Nelson, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”
  • Kenny Starr, “The Blind Man in the Bleachers”

Campbell made quite the comeback with this one, and it later inspired the Dolly Parton film vehicle Rhinestone, which earned an ACM nomination of its own for the Tex Ritter Award.

1975

  • John Denver, “Back Home Again”
  • Merle Haggard, “Things Aren’t Funny Anymore”
  • Ronnie Milsap, “(I’d Be) A Legend in My Time”
  • Cal Smith, “Country Bumpkin”
  • Billy Swan, “I Can Help”

Smith may not have gotten all the recognition that his talent warranted, but he made two undeniable classics: “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking”, and his winner here.

1974

  • Merle Haggard, “If We Make it Through December”
  • Byron MacGregor, “The Americans”
  • Jeanne Pruett, “Satin Sheets”
  • Charlie Rich, “Behind Closed Doors”
  • Charlie Rich, “The Most Beautiful Girl”

Rich’s two hits were so big that even with vote-splitting, he still emerged the winner.

1973

  • Donna Fargo, “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.”
  • Merle Haggard, “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)”
  • Johnny Rodriguez, “Pass Me By (If You’re Only Passing Through)”
  • Jerry Wallace, “If You Leave Me Tonight I’ll Cry”
  • Faron Young, “Four in the Morning”

Fargo was a local star on the West Coast before she broke through nationwide with this hit, dominating the 1973 ACM Awards as a result.

1972

  • Merle Haggard, “Carolyn”
  • Freddie Hart, “Easy Loving”
  • Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, “Lead Me On”
  • Loretta Lynn, “One’s On the Way”
  • Charley Pride, “Kiss an Angel Good Morning”

This gold-selling classic helped Hart triumph over the superstars of his day.

1971

  • Lynn Anderson, “Rose Garden”
  • Merle Haggard, “The Fightin’ Side of Me”
  • Anne Murray, “Snowbird”
  • Ray Price, “For the Good Times”
  • Sammi Smith, “Help Me Make it Through the Night”

Each one of these is a classic in its own right. In a battle of Kristofferson-penned hits, Price emerged victorious, though Smith won the CMA later that year.

1970

  • Glen Campbell, “Try a Little Kindness”
  • Johnny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue”
  • Merle Haggard, “Okie From Muskogee”
  • Billy Mize, “Make it Rain”
  • Elvis Presley, “Don’t Cry Daddy”
  • Freddy Weller, “Games People Play”
  • Tammy Wynette, “Stand By Your Man”

Haggard’s only victory in this category came on a night where he also won Album of the Year for the only time in several nominations.

1969

  • Glen Campbell, “Wichita Lineman”
  • Merle Haggard, “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am”
  • Merle Haggard, “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde”
  • Merle Haggard, “Mama Tried”
  • Roger Miller, “Little Green Apples”

Miller’s known for his legendary songwriting, but his winning hit here was penned by Bobby Russell.

1968

  • Glen Campbell, “Burning Bridges”
  • Glen Campbell, “Gentle on My Mind”
  • The Gosdin Bros., “Hangin’ On”
  • Bobbie Gentry, “Ode to Billy Joe”
  • Merle Haggard, “Branded Man”
  • Merle Haggard, “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive”

A young Vern Gosdin made up half of the nominated Gosdin Bros., a nice historical footnote to the first year of this category. Glen Campbell’s victory was appropriately West Coast for the ACMs first attempt at honoring the national country music scene.

Facts & Feats:

Most Wins

  • (4) – Alan Jackson
  • (3) – Willie Nelson
  • (2) – Glen Campbell, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Kenny Rogers, George Strait, Randy Travis

Most Nominations

  • (12) – Merle Haggard
  • (8) – Willie Nelson
  • (6) – Brooks & Dunn, Alan Jackson, George Strait
  • (5) – Glen Campbell, Waylon Jennings, Tim McGraw
  • (4) – Garth Brooks, Toby Keith, Loretta Lynn, Brad Paisley, Kenny Rogers, Randy Travis

Most Nominations Without a Win

  • (4) – Toby Keith, Loretta Lynn, Brad Paisley
  • (3) – Alabama, Crystal Gayle, The Judds, Miranda Lambert, Hank Williams Jr.

Singles that Won Both the ACM and CMA Award:

  • Merle Haggard, “Okie From Muskogee”
  • Donna Fargo, “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.”
  • Charlie Rich, “Behind Closed Doors”
  • Cal Smith, ‘Country Bumpkin”
  • Kenny Rogers, “Lucille”
  • George Jones, “He Stopped Loving Her Today”
  • Oak Ridge Boys, “Elvira”
  • Willie Nelson, “Always On My Mind”
  • Randy Travis, “Forever and Ever, Amen”
  • Kathy Mattea, “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses”
  • Garth Brooks, “Friends in Low Places”
  • Alan Jackson, “Chattahoochee”
  • John Michael Montgomery, “I Swear”
  • George Strait, “Check Yes or No”
  • Lee Ann Womack with Sons of the Desert, “I Hope You Dance”
  • Alan Jackson, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”
  • Tim McGraw, “Live Like You Were Dying”

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Single Review/Shameless Rant: Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me”

Let’s be real: to most core readers of this blog, it’s probably old news that Miranda Lambert is releasing this unusually good song to radio. And it’s probably old opinion for me to proclaim that she’s playing a more sophisticated game than just about any mainstream artist out there. You know: “she’s real, everyone else is a phony!” Is there some amount of truth in that? Sure. But you don’t need another country music Caulfield to tell you. You just have to listen to the song. The difference between this record and most of the others at radio can be felt within seconds.

So blah blah, it’s very good. Maybe great. The best on the album, which is itself quite good. She’s all that. Know what I find myself thinking? It shouldn’t be like this.

Meaning, it shouldn’t come as a pleasant shock when a major label sends out the best track on the album. Or when the track has that distinction because of its grace and intelligence, not because it happens to be more disposably catchy than the others surrounding it. We shouldn’t feel so tempted to put Miranda Lambert on a pedestal just because she’s one of the only acts who bothers (or, perhaps, gets away with) picking music with a few brain cells. We should feel better about noticing that “The House That Built Me” has a few hackneyed turns of phrase, that the second verse seems underdeveloped compared to the first.

I’d like to tell you about the beautiful craft, depth and delivery that make this single worthy of its almost-certain coronation as the best of the year. But all I can think is that that coronation shouldn’t be so almost-certain. Miranda Lambert is a great young artist; she deserves to compete with other great artists, ones who will elicit her admiration and secret envy and drive her to seek yet better songs, better ideas. It infuriates me that this single sticks out so plainly on the Billboard charts. It infuriates me that it’s such a fluke, that mediocrity is so dominant now that I have to focus all my country-music-fan energy on hoping this one really strong release will hit the Top Ten.

Because we used to have a genre full of this stuff, you guys. We used to have a bunch of of artists at once trying to find or write songs like this in between the standard fluff of the day. Hank, George, Emmylou, Dwight, Mary Chapin, whoever – even a lot of less consistent, less celebrated artists. They didn’t all sound the same, but there was a common thread: they tried to be great.

I don’t know all the political intricacies of country music’s current problem. I’m some guy on the internet blogging from an on-campus apartment. But I know that a lot of problems get fixed when individuals stop trying to please everyone and simply try to be great at what they do. Miranda Lambert has been trying to be great from Day One. And what a pleasure it is when her end result is worthy of the same grade as her effort:

Grade: A

Now, what do the rest of you have to say for yourselves?

Written by Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin

Listen: The House That Built Me

Buy:

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Patty Loveless, Stone Mountain Arts Center (Brownfield, Maine)

patty_lovelessThe following is a guest contribution from frequent commenter and devoted Patty Loveless fan, Stephen Fales, who is better known to Country Universe readers as Steve from Boston.

Country Universe is a site where timeless artists like Patty Loveless are not merely acknowledged, but embraced and celebrated. So when Leeann invited me to review my favorite artist’s Brownfield Maine concert as a guest contributor, I jumped at the chance. Thank you so much Leeann, Kevin and Country Universe for giving me this opportunity. And Leeann and Bill, it was a joy and an honor to join you folks for dinner and watch the concert with you. You both made this already memorable concert experience even more unforgettable for me, along with patty-loveless.net associates Nicole, Richard and Patti, and the following day Bob and Barbara, Kevin. And also, Marcia Ramirez from Patty’s band. Many, many thanks to all.

Patty Loveless at the Stone Mountain Arts Center, Brownfield Maine

July 3, 2009

Nestled in the northern reaches of the Appalachian Mountains, Brownfield Maine’s Stone Mountain Arts Center is a beautiful and intimate 200 seat converted barn turned listening room. It has a warm and rustic ambiance, and a very helpful staff. The wood beam framed building makes for a rich acoustical setting, almost like a giant, wooden resonator box. It is a hard place to find out there in the Maine wilderness, but well worth the effort, especially to enjoy artists and legends like Patty Loveless, Ralph Stanley, Marty Stuart, Suzy Bogguss and Kathy Mattea. Think of it as a quest.

This beautiful mountain setting was a perfect match for Patty Loveless, the celebrated neo-traditional Country artist with the warmly expressive Appalachian alto. The Queen of Mountain Soul seemed right at home in the northernmost reaches of her domain, and seemed to absolutely love the venue.

Patty Loveless is a warmhearted and humble lady, she is a true artist with a good sense of humor and down-to-earth personality, the “anti-diva” as her drummer, Martin Parker, calls her. She takes the stage with very little fanfare, no high tech video introduction or ostentatious stagecraft, no bells, no whistles. She just quietly joins her band and begins to sing. It is all about the music with Loveless, and she lets the music speak for itself.

Still, there was plenty of excitement in the air at Maine’s Stone Mountain Arts Center, but the magic emanated entirely from Patty’s empathetic heart and her crystalline Mountain-bred voice. She sings from a place even deeper than the heart, Patty Loveless sings from the very depths of her Appalachian soul. No smoke or mirrors needed, indeed, they would have been out of their league competing with such natural, God given talent. Patty Loveless sings without a net, and her performance on July 3rd, 2009 was inspired and virtually flawless.

Loveless is the prototypical Country artist. She has refined and perfected her inherent gifts through years of hard work and perseverance, and has become a living link to Country’s Golden age. The artistic (but not the chronological) scope of her work reaches all the way back to the works of the Carter family and Bill Monroe, and forward to the finest modern Country and Bluegrass artists. Folks like Jim Lauderdale who penned two of the 18 songs in Patty’s concert lineup. She is a master interpreter of their work, and a keeper of America’s rich Country and Bluegrass cultural heritage. Patty Loveless is herself, a national treasure.

All that’s good and great about Country music is embodied in the voice of Patty Loveless, and she brings it all to bear on her first rate, soul-nourishing material. Her mentors and musical heroes, her east Kentucky upbringing and authentic Coal-miner’s daughter heritage can be heard in the soulful Mountain timbre of each and every note that she sings.

Her amazing repertoire consists of songs that have been carefully selected over many years by Patty herself and her husband/producer (and genuine musical genius) Emory Gordy Jr. And this they have done with little regard to what is trendy, and with every regard to what is timeless, or potentially so. Patty and Emory choose and write their material with a profound understanding and appreciation of the heritage and traditions of authentic Country and Bluegrass, a heritage she often speaks of with great reverence between her songs. And by following her heart in all of her musical choices, Patty Loveless connects deeply with the hearts of her listeners.

Loveless’ song lineup at SMAC was a mix of real, hard-core Country, and the finest contemporary Country. But the lack of any Mountain/Bluegrass songs that she could have included from her catalog kept this generous sampling from being truly representative of who she is as an artist. Still, a generous lineup of her always high-quality hit songs, and her featured Sleepless Nights mini-set of classic Country covers was fine compensation, and is the stuff of legend in the making.

Patty blazed into her set list with passion and precision, leaving her audience awestruck and breathless. In a very real and literal sense, this was a breathtaking performance from start to finish. At 52, Loveless is still very much an artist on an upward trajectory, and her voice just keeps getting even better with the years.

Some notable highlights: Her heart wrenching rendition of the Jim Lauderdale penned “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me”, for which she won a Vocal Event of the Year award with the legendary George Jones. Loveless has collaborated with some of Country music’s absolute finest male singers, including Jones and Vince Gill, and for live performances she needs a strong male voice to fill the void on a few of those songs. Thankfully, she has found the perfect vocal partner in her band member, Garry Murray, who sang the tricky Jones harmony with feeling and finesse.

“Nothing But the Wheel” is the perfect Country song, by the perfect Country singer. It moves with a forlorn tempo, like the car the protagonist drives away from her heartbreak: ” And 41 goes on and on, and the lights go winding in the dawn, and the sky’s the color now of polished steel…and the only thing I know for sure, is if you don’t want me any-more then I’m holding on to nothing but the wheel.” With Patty Loveless at the wheel, it just doesn’t get any better or more Country.

Patty’s interpretation of the George Jones gem, “If My Heart Had Windows”, is a song of deep gratitude for love gone right, and she sings this slow lover’s waltz with a torch style intensity that warms the heart and burns to the soul.

Patty’s knockout rockabilly rendition of “Why Baby Why” kicks off her Sleepless Nights classics set with high octane energy…Patty describes it as “George Jones meets Tina Turner” But it’s all Patty Loveless…Patty is far too humble to admit this, but she very often surpasses her musical heroes with her own interpretations, and her version and performance here was no exception.

Ray Price’s original version of “Crazy Arms” was charming, but the Loveless version is nothing less than enchanting. It is pure music magic. Pete Finney begins and ends the song with a palpable sting from his expressive steel guitar, but it’s Loveless’ soulful and soaring vocal that really penetrates the heart. When Patty and Emory recorded their version “Crazy Arms” they slowed down the tempo from a moderate shuffle to a torchy ballad. This serves Patty very well in concert by giving her the opportunity to find and wring out every last drop of emotion hiding in the potential of the original.

Some inspired phrasing enables Patty to put great emotional emphasis on the lyric “crazy dream” as in “this ain’t no cra-zy dream I know that it’s real” whereas Price’s original stressed the first word “This” instead. This subtle yet dramatic difference is but one example of the interpretive genius of Patty Loveless.

The title song of Patty’s Grammy nominated classic country covers album, Sleepless Nights, features Vince Gill, and once again Garry Murray came through with flying colors. Vocally flying with Patty Loveless cannot be easy, “why did you go, why did you go? Don’t you know, dont you know? I need you”, But Murray keeps right up and they both soar to the heights. There was lightning in the area during this concert, and there was a single crackle that seemed to come from the amplifiers during this song. But Patty never missed a beat, and the whole song came off perfectly. Patty Loveless is a force of nature, and she positively electrifies her audience.

Lead guitarist Tom Britt took his opportunity to shine during an extended and exciting slide guitar introduction to another Lauderdale song, “Halfway Down” He wailed away like a true rock star, building anticipation before the familiar opening chords of this Loveless hit. Likewise, Patty kept the excitement going full boil throughout this rip-roaring Mountain Rock song.

The set closer was “Blame It on Your Heart”, perhaps Patty’s most performed song of all. She sings it with an energetic enthusiasm that makes the song fresh for singer and listener, every single time. Indeed, this is the way that she approaches every performance, embracing each and every note like it was her first and only chance to shine and share her gift. This Harlan Howard song is just plain fun and children seem to love it as well, as they try to sing the tongue-twister chorus. Loveless is artist and entertainer in equal measure. No other singer on the scene today balances the two quite as well as Patty Loveless does, with the exception perhaps of Dolly Parton.

Patty’s stage presence is confident as one would expect from a seasoned veteran, but also warm, easy going, and playful. She has a natural Country charisma and even her speaking voice, her relaxed east Kentucky drawl is music to the ears of her audience. The stories of her musical heroes, and her accounts of her formative years as a young artist under the tutelage of the late great Porter Wagoner, and her 21 year membership in the Grand Ole Opry, are informative and entertaining.

Her audience interaction is often full of surprises. Observing the intimacy of the venue, Patty commented how folks in the front rows were so close, and jokingly suggested they grab an instrument and come on up onstage. “But don’t grab me”, she quipped. “Although on second thought, that may be fun” Then she quickly added, “don’t mind me, I’m just a real cut up and a harmless flirt”.

When she mentioned her husband Emory Gordy Jr., she received some noticeable applause from the audience. Patty responded saying that it was good that Emory had some fans here as well, and “I see a young lady here with an Emory (University) shirt, How many concerts is this now, Nicole?” to which Patty’s (and Emory’s) most devoted fan replied “199”, and Patty said with a smile, “Wow, I owe you one, don’t I?” Patty also said something about how she was glad Nicole was such a huge Emory fan, then added: “but don’t forget now, he’s MY man”, which also brought laughter from the audience.

After “Blame” Patty introduced her incredible band. It is clear that all these folks are friends and fans of each other, and Loveless herself can often be seen warmly grinning, holding her heart and slowly shaking her head from side to side with enraptured appreciation during her band’s various instrumental interludes. And proficiency on multiple instruments almost seems to be a requirement in the Loveless band. Marcia, Deannie and Garry all play at least three instruments, and it seems most everyone is schooled on mandolin in a way reminiscent of Bill Monroe’s old Bluegrass string band. The stage, as wide as it was, could barely contain the scope of this incredible array of talent.

There are only a few criticisms for this otherwise flawless concert. The sound of the drums for the first few songs was much too loud, and competed for volume with Loveless’ strong vocals instead of supporting them. But that sonic imbalance was pretty well corrected by the sound techs before too long.

Also, Loveless seemed pitch perfect all throughout, with only one or two apparent missteps. Just enough to remind us that this is a gifted flesh and blood human being, and not some kind of angelic troubadour.

After the band introductions and some more friendly banter with her audience, Patty eased into her encore performance of the Hank Williams standard “Cold, Cold Heart”. With sparse acoustic instrumentation and a little steel, it was almost a capella, and one could hear a pin drop between the notes. Patty’s version is chill-inducing perfection, tear producing and is especially potent live. And that evening her performance was especially transcendent, almost supernatural. I almost expected to see the ghost of Hank Williams take a seat and tip his hat to the finest female interpreter of his work, bar none. I would love to see what Loveless could do with ole Hank’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. The audience, and even her own band, was transfixed and mesmerized. Band members Marcia and Deannie especially, looked on with smiles of amazement.

With the completion of each song in the lineup, Loveless and her band received enthusiastic applause, which she greeted each time with sweet smiles and a grateful “God Bless You.” And at the end, she received thunderous standing ovations, and seemed genuinely humbled and overwhelmed. She gathered her band with her outstretched arms, and then they all graciously bowed a collective bow.

Patty Loveless is the most authentic voice in Country music today. Her fidelity to tradition, her creative blending of her own brand of mountain and country music, and her artistic integrity have rightly earned her the title of “Queen of Mountain Soul” from the great Ralph Stanley himself. And performances like her Brownfield concert on Friday, and albums like the exquisite Sleepless Nights demonstrate that she has earned the title “Queen of Country Soul” as well.

Patty’s long awaited follow up to her acclaimed 2001 classic Mountain Soul is scheduled for release on September 29th. Mountain Soul II has every essential ingredient to be yet another Loveless-Gordy masterpiece, and should enrich her already exceptional set list considerably. Just in time for the next leg of her tour starting this Fall.

As for a possible return to the Stone Mountain Arts Center? Word has it that Patty loved it so much, and felt so welcome by her gracious hosts Carol Noonan (folk singer and songwriter), and her husband, their staff and her appreciative fans, that she hopes to return twice a year.

Both on record and in concert, the music of Patty Loveless befriends the listener. She may sing “Soul of Constant Sorrow” on her Mountain Soul album, but the music of Patty Loveless is a source of great and constant joy, as well as inspiration, catharsis and consolation for all with attentive, listening hearts.

-Steve from Boston

For more information on Patty Loveless, visit

Patty-loveless.net,
Which is the most comprehensive and up-to-date Patty Loveless fan site.

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Traditional Country is a Link in a Long Chain

The following is a guest contribution from Scott O’Brien.

“But someone killed tradition. And for that someone should hang.” –Larry Cordle & Larry Shell, “Murder on Music Row”

Dan Milliken’s recent post got me thinking: The country music I grew up with is nothing like the music on country radio today. If I turned on today’s country radio in 1988, I might not realize it was a country station and keep right on flipping. Back then, Randy Travis and Keith Whitley’s traditional twang ruled the airwaves. Today, they are dominated by the giggly teeny-bopper ditties of Taylor Swift and the boy band sounds of Rascal Flatts. Did they get away with murder on music row? Well, let’s start by briefly uncovering country’s traditional roots.

What is traditional country music? Is it simply anything from the past? That seems too broad; Shania Twain wasn’t traditional. Anything that isn’t pop? Maybe, but that is still a rather wide and subjective net. To me, traditional country music is honky tonk music. It heavily employs steel guitars, fiddles, and forlorn vocals. It moves at a slow pace. There are no drums or electric guitars. The songs typically deal with heavy topics such as heartbreak, cheating, or drinking, with a ballad here and there. In most cases, the goal is to induce pain. Not bad pain, but the therapeutic empathy that tugs your heart and helps you through your personal struggles. The patron saint of traditional country is Hank Williams. Hank’s first disciple is George Jones. Jones’ first disciple is Alan Jackson. The traditional template is supposed to help us decipher what is country and what is not. After all, what makes country music country if not fiddles and cheatin’ songs?

These days, traditionalists have a legitimate beef. When you turn on the radio, you don’t hear much steel guitar. Instead, you hear what might pass for 1990s pop, replete with fluffy repetitive lyrics, catchy drum beats, guitar riffs, and sex appeal. We aren’t preserving country music when the CMT Music Awards feature the B-52s and Def Leppard in lieu of John Anderson and Charley Pride. Was there a tribute to recently deceased traditionalist Vern Gosdin? No way. Do today’s artists “tear your heart out when they sing”? Not a chance. Is Keith Urban going to fill Conway Twitty’s shoes? Not a prayer. You know we are in trouble when pop-infused zipwire-flier Garth Brooks sounds more like Merle Haggard than today’s stars. Heck, just listen to Taylor Swift’s latest album. If that is country, I’ll kiss your ass. Nashville, we have a problem.

But let’s not go off the deep end just yet. Maybe traditionalists are thinking about things too narrowly. Country music is much more than Webb Pierce’s raw steel guitar-laden crooning. It always has been. Going back before Hank to the First Family of Country Music, the Carter family sound was an amalgam of several different sub-genres including Appalachian old-time, folk, and gospel. Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music, blended elements of jazz, gospel, old-time and blues to create some of the first country sounds. Marty Robbins played just about every musical style conceivable. Traditionalist hero Elvis Presley sang rockabilly. Johnny Cash had similar beginnings and even years later there was nothing “traditional” about his trademark up-tempo bass beat. Waylon Jennings’ music incorporated Buddy Holly’s rock-n-roll rhythm; he even wrote a song about how un-Hank-like his music was. Merle Haggard’s Bob Wills-inspired Bakersfield sound used amps and electric guitars. Even 1980s ACM Artist of the Decade Alabama shunned the steel guitar altogether and typically sang up-tempo, feel-good music. Yet these names are among the most venerated by traditionalists. What gives?

The problem is that traditionalists aren’t even sure what traditional country is. If it includes all artists who sold country records without crossing over to pop, the label is not very helpful. If it is strictly honky tonk, do we really want a bunch of Hank Williams clones? As great as he was, we surely do not. There has to be some updating – just ask Alan Jackson, who has innovated the traditionalist motif without sacrificing his authenticity. The genre has to evolve or it risks becoming boring and repetitive. Waylon Jennings understood this well (“It’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar/Where do we take it from here?”). Hank Williams’ own son realized it too after trying for years to replicate his father’s sound. His song “Young Country” directly attacked the tradition-or-else mentality: “We like some of the old stuff/We like some of the new/But we do our own choosing/We pick our own music/If you don’t mind, thank you.” He is right. Why draw lines? Strict uniformity is not desirable in any genre, particularly country, whose trademark is its diversity of influences, instruments, rhythms, voices, song topics, and stories.

So what should define today’s country music? It should pay tribute to the past by incorporating and updating its unique fusion of diverse influences. It doesn’t have to be strictly “traditional.” But country music needs to capture the sentiments of rural and working class America. It needs to cover painful topics like drinking and cheating. It needs to tell colorful stories. It needs to tear your heart out sometimes. It also needs to make you feel good sometimes. What it shouldn’t do is become pop music. When country is indistinguishable from Top 40, it loses its soul. Unfortunately, this has happened with the Keith Urbans, Rascal Flatts, and Taylor Swifts – all talented artists to be sure. But country artists? Not so much. Still, there are old warhorses like George Strait who carry the torch and newcomers like Jamey Johnson who give us hope that country’s soul will stay alive and well.

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Tradition: Chain of Strength or Chain of Restraint?

chainThis past weekend, I had the privilege of attending the 2009 International Country Music Conference, conveniently held at a building on my college campus. The three-day event made for quite a mind-feast – so much so, actually, that it’s taking me longer than I had hoped to sort through all my notes and compose a post to do the thing justice. So that’ll be coming through the pipeline sometime within the next few days.

In the meantime, though, one issue raised during the event has really stuck out in my mind, and I thought I’d give it a spin here.

Here’s what happened: in a discussion on Waylon Jennings’ career attitude during his peak Outlaw years, someone mentioned that his label disliked the way he seemed to view himself as a musical descendant of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, as if his only role as a recording artist was to serve as a link in those artists’ musical “chain.” The speaker speculated that this sort of “big picture” attitude toward one’s art would probably worry many labels, simply because it directs the public’s focus away from an artist’s individual “star.”

That struck me as eerily relevant to today’s scene, where it’s become much less simple to hypothesize about which artists the big stars have “descended” from – and heck, which genres, in many cases. Today, more than I’ve yet witnessed in my young life, there seems to be much greater emphasis on building up an artist’s individual importance, rather than carrying a certain “flag.” Concerts are getting bigger and more histrionic; the CMA telecast books any act who might help ratings and basically snubs Hall of Fame inductees; and of course, most shout-outs to country legends of yore by today’s artists are usually just shallow attempts to build cred. The mainstream seems to have spoken its bit loud and clear: progress must be pursued, and no need for guidance from the past, thank you very much.

Of course, is that mentality necessarily a bad thing? Some acts have used it to impressive effect. Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, for example, always seemed more interested in blazing new trails for mainstream country music than in following old ones, and they reaped huge dividends with that approach – certainly monetary ones, and perhaps artistic ones, too, depending on your opinion of them.

But was it all truly unique, or just not acknowledged as derivative of something else? And either way, what impact does that kind of approach have on country music as a whole? Is it better, worse, or just different than the traditional “I’m the next in the line of…” way of thinking? Is one really more marketable than the other?

I guess if I had to boil it all down to one question, it would be: what are your thoughts on the role and treatments of tradition in today’s country music?

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