The country music umbrella stretched wider than ever this year, regardless of the fact that radio playlists seem shorter than ever.
Of course, it’s not just the Americana acts that can’t get radio play these days. Even top-selling albums by Scotty McCreery and Alison Krauss & Union Station weren’t embraced.
Country Universe editors and contributors each submitted a list of their ten favorite albums of 2011. 31 different albums were included on our lists, and over the next two days, we’ll share with you our collective top twenty.
Top Twenty Albums of 2011, Part One: #20-#11
#20 Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail
His tenure with the Punch Brothers and his winning of the first annual “Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass” in 2010 both earned Noam Pikelny the clout to release Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, his second solo album and first since 2004. Joined by an all-star roster of fellow pickers, Pikelny’s mostly instrumental set is a showcase both for its lead artist’s extraordinary technical skills and for the banjo’s wide-ranging potential. – Jonathan Keefe
Individual Rankings: Jonathan – #4
Recommended Tracks: “Fish and Bird” featuring Aoife O’Donovan, “Boathouse on the Lullwater,” “My Mother Thinks I’m a Lawyer”
#19 The King is Dead
The indie favorites take their hyper-literate brand of folk-rock for a rustic spin, achieving new concision in the process. Colin Meloy’s wild narratives and wilder lexical choices sound right at home in these short-and-sweet song designs, and the Americana field is richer for having them. – Dan Milliken
Individual Rankings: Dan – #4
Recommended Tracks: “Don’t Carry It All,” “June Hymn”
That solo women disappeared from country radio was one of 2011′s major talking points within the genre, but Sunny Sweeney’s Concrete provided some of the most compelling evidence that it wasn’t a lack of strong material that kept female artists off radio playlists. Balancing a keen traditionalist bent with a thoroughly modern point-of-view, Sweeney’s fully-drawn characters and clever spins on familiar country tropes proved that an album that sounds “radio friendly” doesn’t have to be light on actual substance or craft. – Jonathan Keefe
Individual Rankings: Ben – #3
Recommended Tracks: “Amy,” “From a Table Away,” “Fall for Me”
#17 It’s Already Tomorrow
Foster and Lloyd
Their first time around, Foster and Lloyd were one of the coolest country acts going, blending in a love of traditional country music with some ’60s post-British Invasion rock vibes. It’s Already Tomorrow, their first album in 20 years, shows an impressive return to form. Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd have released some terrific solo albums, but there is a definite magic that happens when they record as a duo. – Sam Gazdziak
Individual Rankings: Sam – #2
Recommended Tracks: “Picasso’s Mandolin,” “That’s What She Said,” “Can’t Make Love Make Sense”
#16 This is My Blood
The Dirt Drifters
As mainstream country music becomes increasingly slick and polished, it’s a refreshing change to hear something gritty and rough around the edges. The Dirt Drifters’ debut on Warner Bros. certainly qualifies. If you’re looking for country-rock that takes its cue from run-down country roadhouses instead of ’80s arena rock, this album is for you. – Sam Gazdziak
Individual Rankings: Sam – #3; Dan – #10
Recommended Tracks: “Always a Reason,” “Married Men and Motel Rooms,” “Hurt Somebody”
#15 Ghost to a Ghost/Gutter Town
Hank III’s entire artistic persona is built on indulging in every type of excess he can think of, so it was hardly a shock when, for his first recordings after a less-than-amicable departure from Curb Records, he dropped four full-length albums of new material on the same day. While not all of his ideas are good ones– the less said about Cattle Callin’, the better– the double-album Ghost to a Ghost / Gutter Town proves that Hank III is driven to his spectacular highs not just by the various recreational drugs circulating through his bloodstream but also by a real fearlessness and creativity and a sense of respect for his bloodline. – Jonathan Keefe
Individual Rankings: Jonathan – #1
Recommended Tracks: “Don’t Ya Wanna,” “Musha’s,” “Dyin’ Day”
#14 Ghost on the Canvas
A late-in-life swan song by an icon acutely aware of their own mortality. That’s a fitting description of so many of the best country albums in recent years. This is the best of that subgenre since Porter Wagoner’s Wagonmaster. – Kevin John Coyne
Individual Rankings: Kevin – #5; Dan – #6
Recommended Tracks: “There’s No Me…Without You”, “Ghost on the Canvas”
On the heels of an album that was largely a hit or miss affair, Church delivers a surprisingly electric third album, marked by its edgy sonic splash. But while its spin on country rock is undeniably enticing –a funky mix of swampy, trippy and punchy—the album’s soul is Church himself, a more believable artist this time around than most of his contemporaries. Because for all its hard ass sentiment, Chief actually walks the walk, as authentic as it is audacious. Outlaw in the making? Probably, but don’t tell Church I said so. – Tara Seetharam
Individual Rankings: Tara – #4; Sam – #6; Leeann – #10; Jonathan – #10
Recommended Tracks: “Hungover & Hard Up,” “Keep On,” “Creepin’”
#12 Long Line of Heartaches
What more can you ask for? Purely straightforward and unadulterated country songs delivered by the finest vocalist the genre has ever been privileged to call its own. Smith’s own co-writes with husband and producer Marty Stuart (The title track, “I’m Not Blue,” “Pain of a Broken Heart”) sit comfortably alongside top-notch cover material penned by Harlan Howard, Johnny Russell, and Dallas Frazier, all backed by the sweet sounds of fiddle and steel aplenty. Long Line of Heartaches is a beautiful reminder of what country music once was, and could be again. – Ben Foster
Individual Rankings: Ben – #2; Jonathan – #5
Recommended Tracks: “Long Line of Heartaches,” “I’m Not Blue,” “Ain’t You Even Gonna Cry”
#11 Your Money and My Good Looks
Gene Watson and Rhonda Vincent
There was no chance that this collaboration of straight up country songs between Gene Watson and Rhonda Vincent was going to garner any attention from mainstream country music outlets. However, thanks to memorable songs, pure country production and Watson and Vincent reverently following the spirit of classic country duet albums of the past, this project was surely one of the stand out albums of the year. – Leeann Ward
Individual Rankings: Leeann – #2; Ben – #5
Recommended Tracks: “You Could Know as Much from a Stranger,” “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”
Connie Smith is hailed by many as the best vocalist in country music history, and that distinction is clearly warranted. When it comes to tone, phrasing, and vocal power, the woman has no equal. In listening to Long Line of Heartaches, her first album of new material since 1998, it would be a great understatement to say that she is still in fine voice. Her voice may have picked up a few rough edges over the years, but she still posseses more than enough vocal chops to blow today’s hitmakers out of the water.
Perhaps one of the most important characteristics setting Smith head-and-shoulders above so many current artists is her firm grasp on one of the most important truths about great country music: Sincerity comes before power. “I believe that country music is the cry of the heart,” she says in the album’s liner notes. “It spans the whole of our emotions from the ecstasy to the agony. I believe the role of a singer is not just to perform, but to communicate this heart-felt cry to the audience.”
Right from the opening steel guitar chords of the title track, Long Line of Heartaches gives unshakable authority and authenticity to the above statements. Husband Marty Stuart acts as producer for this twelve-track set, backing Smith with vintage-sounding traditional country arrangements that consistently allow her incomparable voice to be the center of attention. The sound of this record is not far removed from the music of her 60′s heyday, yet it benefits from the clarity of sophisticated modern-day recording techniques. She wringes every ounce of emotion from each song’s lyrics, bringing a weathered been-there-done-that pathos to her delivery of “Long Line of Heartaches” and “The Pain of a Broken Heart,” both co-written with Stuart (Smith shares writing credits on five of the album’s twelve tracks).
Today’s mainstream artist’s often lean toward positive uplifting material so as to be accepted by country radio, but they all too often seem to forget the fact that country music’s signature theme is heartache. On this set, however, heartache is the central theme – treated often with undercurrents of pain and regret, but sometimes tinged with hope and dawning optimism. In the beautiful “That Makes Two of Us,” written by Kostas with Patty Loveless and Emory Gordy, Jr., Smith expresses a desire to set aside past differences and to reconcile with her former lover, and seeks to find out if her feelings are requited, entreating “Don’t you think it’s time to let the healing start?”
On “Ain’t You Even Gonna Cry,” Smith is determined to walk out on an ill-fated relationship, completely self-assured of her decision, yet still taken back by the nonchalant ease with which her significant other watches her leave. In contrast, she puts on a confident air on the album standout “I’m Not Blue,” yet the lyric and performance betray the fact that she is in denial of her true feelings. (“If you think there’s teardrops in my eyes/ They’re only raindrops from the sky… The truth gets hard to say when pride stands in the way/ So just let me lie to you/ I’m not blue) In addition to these fine selections, we are treated to a well-chosen cover of the Harlan Howard/ Kostas composition “I Don’t Believe That’s How You Feel.”
Complementing the high caliber of songwriting, Smith is joined by some talented musicians on this album, including the members of her longtime backing band The Sundowners. Marty Stuart plays electric, acoustic, and hi 3rd guitars, while renowned steel player Robby Turner plays on six of the album’s tracks. As a special treat in closing, Smith’s own daughters – Jodi Seyfried, Jeanne Jaynes, and Julie Barnick – sing background vocals on the album’s final track, the spiritual ballad “Take My Hand.”
Long Line of Heartaches triumphs artistically thanks to its unerring focus on song and storytelling above all else, thus drawing on Smith’s formidable vocal prowess without exploiting it. It’s the same approach that has served Smith well throughout her Hall of Fame-worthy career. The result is an album that ranks among the best of 2011, and that effectively builds on the already well-established legacy of Connie Smith.
I was in my early teens when I first discovered Sara Evans… and I thought she was the greatest thing since sliced bread. The rich, throaty texture of her distinct voice reeled me in, and her entertaining mixture of traditional and contemporary influences had me thoroughly hooked. Now that I’ve also become familiar with the likes of Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood, and Emmylou Harris, my view of Sara is a little more in-perspective these days, but I do still consider myself a big fan, and she holds a special distinction as one of the first female country artists I really got into.
Radio passed on her when she first emerged as a neotraditionalist in the late nineties, but with future efforts, Sara went on to become a star, thanks to her ability to adapt to changing times while still staying true to herself. She was one of the dominant female country voices on the radio dial in the early years of the twenty-first century, and after enduring a bit of a dry spell for a few years, she has recently experienced a commercial resurgence.
Though she maintained a fairly consistent quality standard for the better part of her career, recent years have seen that standard slipping thanks to subpar pop-country cuts in the vein of “Feels Just Like a Love Song.” Nonetheless, Sara still deserves credit for having a solid body of work behind her that’s well worth remembering. If we’re fortunate, perhaps we may one day see Sara make a return to form, or even delve back into her traditional country and bluegrass roots.
The following list includes many of the songs that best exemplify the qualities that drew me to the music of Sara Evans in the first place. It’s not meant to be a strict listing of the songs that unquestionably rank as Sara’s “best;” (which would be pretty subjective anyway) It’s merely a list of my own personal favorites. Let it be an enjoyable look back on some of Sara’s finest moments. If you would like to share any of your own favorites in the comments section, please feel free to do so.
“A Little Bit Stronger”
Somehow, Sara’s comeback hit finds a way to hit my sweet spot for power ballads. (Yes, I actually do have a sweet spot for power ballads, though few have been able to hit it) What was it about this song that won me over? Maybe it was the subtle strains of mandolin and steel. Maybe it’s the build-up nature of the song – the way the progressive nature of the narrator’s healing is mirrored by the production and by Sara’s vocal delivery. At any rate, the ingredients come together to form a record greater than the sum of its parts.
Real Fine Place, 2005
It’s not just a song about how cool small-town life is. Stylistically, the song even ranks as one of Sara’s most pop-friendly album tracks. As Sara’s character expresses her desire to escape the hustle-and-bustle of city life, the song becomes a plea for a return to the simple things in life. Though not all of us intend to make a big old move to a small town, no doubt many among us harbor a similar deep-down yearning just to “find a little earth to stand on.”
The catchy guitar hook is an instant attention-getter, but this number-two hit from Sara’s Restless album has a heart and a simple message at its core: “Real love and real life doesn’t have to be perfect.” Add in a few quirky and clever lines such as “If in every wedding picture my daddy looks annoyed, it’s all right,” as well as the fitting conclusion that “All the fairy tales tell a lie,” and you’ve got a real beauty.
“Momma’s Night Out”
Real Fine Place, 2005
I love this song mainly because it’s a side of Sara that we haven’t seen very often. She’s rarely been one to record party songs. But on this track, Sara takes on the role of an overworked mother who throws in the towel, leaves the kids with daddy, and hits the town with the girls. Sara’s sassy vocal finds her as loose as she’s ever been, while the funky horn-infused production makes it an unforgettable track
No Place That Far, 1999
The distinct voice of George Jones, even when coming in the form of background vocals, has the ability to make a great song even greater (see Patty Loveless, “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me”). In this shamelessly twangy steel-infused country rave-up from No Place That Far, the Possum joins Sara in delivering the unshakable hook of “Tell Cupid not to point that thing at me!”
I have a bit of a weakness for country music that borrows from Irish and Celtic influences as this track does. The gorgeous Celtic-harp-laced arrangement makes “Restless” a highlight of one of Sara’s most stylistically-diverse albums. The lyrics are every bit as beautiful, poetically telling of a restless soul learning to make peace with the fact that she will be a wanderer until the day she dies.
Billy: The Early Years (soundtrack), 2008
Sara’s contribution to the Billy soundtrack is nothing short of a pure joy, replete with the sounds of pure country and bluegrass instrumentation. Though the lyrics invoke religious elements, they don’t sound preachy at all. It’s not a “You should live your life this way” kind of song; It’s an “I’m going to live my life this way” kind of song. It’s a proactive anthem of strength, resolve, and determination – more uplifting than a million Martina McBride power ballads combined.
“I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail”
Three Chords and the Truth, 1997
Fact: Sara sounds best when singing traditional country music. Going back and listening to Sara’s shamelessly neotraditional debut album is a joy for any fan of stone cold country. Here she pays tribute to the vintage Bakersfield sound with a cover of a Buck Owens hit co-written by Harlan Howard. Besides being a highlight of the Three Chords and the Truth album, this song was instrumental in helping Sara get the chance to snag a record deal and become a star. It was when the legendary songwriter Harlan Howard himself heard Sara’s performance of his classic song that he threw all his efforts into helping the young talent get discovered.
“Fool, I’m a Woman”
No Place That Far, 1999
This deliciously snarky tune has Matraca Berg’s fingerprints all over it. In a composition by one of country’s finest songwriters, Sara plays off the age-old stereotype of a woman’s continual habit of changing her mind. She scoffs at old romantic clichés as she pointedly tells off her soon-to-be-ex-lover – “You used to tell me so many nights/ You don’t deserve me/ Well maybe you were right.” Ouch!
“A Real Fine Place to Start”
Real Fine Place, 2005
I have a major affinity for songs that can effectively channel the excitement of a newfound romance, and this Radney Foster-penned number-one hit from 2005 squarely hits that target. Thanks in large part to Sara’s soaring vocal performance, “A Real Fine Place to Start” is a fun, breezy record that bubbles over with energy and exuberance, and begs to be blasted out one’s car windows. A shining example of pop-country done well.
“Why Should I Care”
Born to Fly, 2000
A sparse pop-country ballad in which a woman struggles to make sense of the feelings of guilt and jealousy that suddenly surface when she finds out that her former lover has found someone new.
Three Chords and the Truth, 1997
Sara’s take on this Patsy Cline torch ballad ranks as arguably one of the finest displays of Sara’s vocal talents that can be found on any of her studio albums.
Real Fine Place, 2005
This melancholy Lori McKenna song was one of the best tracks on Real Fine Place. While so many country stars have gleefully sang the praises of small-town living, “Bible Song” echoes the message that life in such idealistic small towns is not always what it’s cracked up to be. The pace of life may be slower, but this tragic story of a young man’s drug-induced death shows that even small town residents at times fall prey to their own inner demons.
A genuine nugget of wisdom is wrapped up in this blazing fiddle-shredder. The narrator recounts a frightening childhood experience in which a tree falls near her family’s house after being struck by lightning. Then her father carves the tree’s wood into a rocking horse that becomes one of her most treasured toys. By showing how this experience shapes the narrator’s outlook on life, “Rockin’ Horse” becomes a colorful testament to the power of positive thinking, with its message summed up in the memorable hook “When it’s pouring down on me/ In my life I see the rockin’ horse inside the tree.”
Greatest Hits, 2007
Four new tracks were included on Sara’s 2007 Greatest Hits package, and this almost-Top 10 hit was by far the best. With cheeky, humorous lyrics, Sara satirically poked fun at the human tendency toward infatuation that blinds one to all a person’s shortcomings. The catchy melody and energetic performance made for an earworm of a record that was truly unforgettable.
“What That Drink Cost Me”
The new album could have benefited greatly from more songs like this. This restrained steel guitar weeper is the stuff of a country classic – a heart-wrenching tale of the destructive power of alcohol. Though the Stronger album as a whole found Sara saddled with an excess of disposable material, the fact that it also included one of the best songs she had written in years is an encouraging sign. Besides that, “What That Drink Cost Me” is yet another example of one of the qualities that I’ve always appreciated about Sara’s music: Even after she went in a more pop-flavored musical direction, her traditional country influences were never fully snuffed out.
“If You Ever Want My Lovin’”
Three Chords and the Truth, 1997
This loose, flirty, upbeat little ditty was co-written by Sara along with Billy Yates and Melba Montgomery. Though the cheeky lyrics can put an instant smile on one’s face, the record’s most endearing trait is Sara’s raw, expressive vocal delivery. Though Sara’s Missouri twang is toned back on some of her more pop-oriented material, this record allows that twang to stand front and center.
Three Chords and the Truth, 1997
This was the only original song on Sara’s debut album on which she did not share writing credits, originating from the pen of Leslie Satcher. As the song’s narrator discovers evidence of a secret love from her man’s past, she views his willingness to leave it behind as evidence of his genuine love for her. She resolves to return that love by trusting in her man, and allowing his secret to remain a secret.
“No Place That Far”
No Place That Far, 1999
Vince Gill is one of country music’s favorite harmony vocalists (besides being an A-list legend in his own right), and he adds something particularly special to the hauntingly beautiful love song that was Sara’s breakthrough chart-topper. The song reaches a crescendo in the final chorus as Sara sings “If I had to run, if I had to crawl…” and is answered each time by that distinctive tenor. It’s as if we’re listening to two lovers singing to one another from afar off, pledging their unwavering determination to be reunited. Though it’s a great lyric in its own right, the chemistry of the two performers gives the story an extra layer that can’t be seen just by looking at the lyrics on paper.
“I Learned That from You”
Born to Fly, 2000
Though found on one of Sara’s most pop-oriented albums, “I Learned from You” was one of the finest and most country tracks on Sara’s breakthrough album Born to Fly. A heavy-hearted reflection on the difficult leassons learned from a first love that didn’t last, while also an appreciative recollection of all the happy memories that were made at the time.
Real Fine Place, 2005
The timing was unfortunate for the release of this underplayed gem that offered a glimpse of Sara’s mountain bluegrass influences. A flirty, playful lyric and performance added up to a song that was loads of fun as Sara fawned over her man “walking out of that coalmine, covered with dust, T-shirt tight, all muscled up.” This is one Sara Evans single that is definitely deserving of a re-release.
“Three Chords and the Truth”
Three Chords and the Truth, 1997
The title track of Sara’s debut is a testament to the power of country music in dredging up deeply held emotions in a listener – emotions that we might have ignored in the past. It’s the kind of song that always reminds me why I love country music so much. Sara’s character hears a country song on the radio for the first time, and it not only brings back the emotions, but it moves her to action. It motivates her to turn the car around and reconcile with the lover she had intended to leave far behind. “Three Chords” is a beautifully constructed story that effectively pays tribute to country music at its best, demonstrating that there’s so much more to this unique and special genre than what the ugly stereotypes would lead some to believe.
“Suds In the Bucket”
Besides being an excellent singalong driving jam, this fiddle-and-steel-laden hit is a humorous glimpse at tongue-wagging small-town culture, sans the chest-pounding backwoods clichés that are common on country radio today. Fun, playful, and full of personality, this country rave-up was the song that first got me into Sara Evans, and it’s remained a personal favorite of mine ever since. It never fails to make me feel happy.
Real Fine Place, 2005
This Top Ten hit takes a classic country music theme – infidelity – and puts a distinct and memorable spin on it. After having parted ways with an unfaithful spouse, Sara’s character gloats over the unpleasant living situation her ex has since found himself in. But as the lyric progresses, she reveals that she has been genuinely hurt by his actions, and she unashamedly drops the bomb of “Yes, I’ll be glad to take you back just as soon as I stop breathing.” Amusingly spiteful and achingly emotional at the same time, “Cheatin’” exemplifies the layered organic storytelling that makes for a killer country song, while the traditional-styled arrangement acts as the perfect sonic backdrop to Sara’s bitterly nuanced performance.
“Born to Fly”
Born to Fly, 2000
Sara’s career record remains one of her most enduring and effortlessly charming hits, and with it’s distinctive drumbeat intro and bluegrass-tinged instrumentation, it’s definitely one of her most recognizeable. “Born to Fly” is an endearing coming-of-age tale of a young woman exploring her potential in life, and seeking to find her place in the world. It manages to perfect the magic formula of possessing a unique identity of its own, while still being universal such that a wide array of individuals can relate to the feelings it expresses. Who among us has never gone through this period of life as a young person? We’ve all been at that crossroads point in life, and felt what it’s like to be “starin’ down the road, just lookin’ for my one chance to run.”
In a way, the song could also be seen as symbolic of the point Sara was at in her career when she recorded it. Would her third album improve on the moderate success of No Place That Far, or would it be ignored like the commercially-underappreciated Three Chords and the Truth? It was with this album and single that Sara struck platinum with a style that was just slick enough to be commercially friendly without sacrificing the heart of her earlier work. The result? Her career ‘soared away like a blackbird.’
In a career that has included many memorable singles, “Born to Fly” is one of the very finest.
Reba McEntire already has 56 top ten hits to her credit, and her new single, “Strange”, just entered the chart at #39, a career-high entry for the legendary singer. She's been a presence on the country charts for 23 years, has more gold and platinum albums than any female country artist, and she's a multimedia star, finding great success on Broadway and in television and film.
But for those who know her best as a sitcom star or Kelly Clarkson's and Kenny Chesney's duet partner, trying to tackle her catalog is a daunting task. This Starter Kit will get you going, as it includes ten of her most essential tracks. Those of you looking to learn more about McEntire are highly recommended to check out the excellent My Kind of Country blog, which gives frequent and always high-quality coverage of McEntire's music, past and present.
“Somebody Should Leave” from the 1984 album My Kind of Country
Even though she was won her first CMA award for Female Vocalist before this album was released, My Kind of Country is widely credited as being the first truly great Reba McEntire album. She exerted creative control for the first time, and instantly became one of the genre's most significant new traditionalists.
This Harlan Howard classic is achingly, heartbreakingly beautiful, a description that fits most of McEntire's best work. Here, a couple is aware that it's time to part ways, but aren't sure how to go about it, so worried are they for their children: “If it was only you and me, goodbye might come more easily. But what about those babies down the hall?”
“Whoever's in New England” from the 1986 album Whoever's in New England
A country ballad on the surface, a power pop ballad below the surface. This epic of suspected cheating turned her into a record seller, and earned her the CMA award for Entertainer of the Year.
“One Promise Too Late” from the 1986 album What Am I Gonna Do About You
McEntire's recorded quite a bit of traditional country, but rarely as pure as this track, where the musical hook is provided by twin fiddles and her voice is even twangier than usual.
“You Lie” from the 1990 album Rumor Has It
There were quite a few solid singles off Reba's lesser-known but still platinum-selling albums from the late eighties. But when she teamed with Tony Brown for Rumor Has It, the lead single “You Lie” blew them out of the water. The full range of her voice was on display for the first time, and it was a force to be reckoned with.
“Fancy” from the 1990 album Rumor Has It
Bobbie Gentry's original was tinged with sadness and regret, but McEntire turned it into an empowerment anthem, a full force assualt on the “self-righteous hypocrites that call me bad.” She did what she had to do, and she stayed true to her mother and herself. She could care less what anyone else thinks about it.
Paul W. Dennis of The 9513 said that his Randy Travis Starter Kit could begin and end with the entirety of Storms of Life. I could say the same about McEntire and her masterpiece For My Broken Heart.
Recorded in the wake of the plane crash that killed her road manager and several members of her band, the album is somber without ever becoming too morose. The title track was originally planned as a duet with Clint Black, but McEntire did it alone in the end. Her performance on the CMA Awards was one of her finest moments, even as her voice visibly cracked with emotion at the end.
“The Greatest Man I Never Knew” from the 1991 album For My Broken Heart
A daughter looks back on the man who sacrificed everything he had to make a better life for his family, but in so doing, never got to know his daughter. “I never really knew him,” she laments, “and now it seems so sad. Everything he gave to us took all he had.”
“If I Had Only Known” from the 1991 album For My Broken Heart
Her finest moment on record, as she looks back with sad regret on the things that she never said to a loved one who has died. “If I had only known it was my last night by your side, I'd pray a miracle stop the dawn. And when you smiled at me, I would look into your eyes and make sure you know my love for you goes on and on.”
“The Fear of Being Alone” from the 1996 album What If It's You
This strikingly intelligent hit finds McEntire warning her new beau not to rush into saying “I love you.” She warns him that “you may think you do, but you don't. It's just the fear of being alone.”
“Moving Oleta” from the 2003 album Room to Breathe
This one's so painfully sad that it could've been on For My Broken Heart. A man moves his wife into a nursing home because he can no longer care for her, so advanced is her Alzheimer's.
Harlan Howard is one of the most distinguished songwriters in country music history. When interviewed about his #1 hit for the Judds (“Why Not Me”), he made an interesting statement about the need for repeating certain titles throughout a song:
“Why Not Me” wasn’t a great title. To get a really good record, you’ve gotta write a hell of a song when you’re dealing with a title that average. The only thing I know to do with songs like “Why Not Me” and “Busted” – which I never thought was a good title – is to put the title in there often so that people remember it. The weaker the title, the more you gotta hear it.”
“Why Not Me” earned the Judds the Country Duo/Group Grammy and the CMA award for Single of the Year. “Busted” was hit for both Johnny Cash with the Carter Family in the sixties and John Conlee in the eighties. Both songs feature the titles repeated endlessly.
I think this quote is fascinating because it provides a window into how two songs from different eras were crafted by the same writer. I never noticed the similarities before reading the quote.
I’d also add that the Little Texas hit “My Love” and the Brooks & Dunn hit “That’s What It’s All About” show how the rule can be taken too far, in my opinion, and turn into just an annoying song.
“I like to give artists a song they have to sing the rest of their lives. Songwriting is both my living and my pleasure, so I’m a happy man.” ~ Harlan Howard
The dean of country music songwriters, Harlan Howard paved the way for all future practitioners of his craft, lending an authenticity and eloquence to the music that will last for the ages. Through five decades of classic songs, Howard put his indelible stamp on the country music industry through sheer genius and, like many fellow artists and songwriters, rose through the ranks with country music as a constant love through a hardscrabble life.
Born and raised in a Michigan farm town, Howard, an orphan, was first drawn to country music by his weekly appointments with the Grand Ole Opry radio shows on Nashville’s WSM radio. This love affair with the music continued when he traveled to Nashville on weekends during his stint as an Army paratrooper in Georgia, and it was that appreciation for the fine art that led him to leave for Los Angeles in 1955 to work in the factories while attempting a career in songwriting. A year after arriving in Los Angeles, Howard met Tex Ritter and Johnny Bond, who were impressed with the young songwriter’s catalog, culled from numerous hours of writing songs in his head while working at the factory. One of the first tunes that Howard wrote eventually became a country classic, “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down”, first recorded by Charlie Walker and a #2 hit in 1958. Another early success came in 1960, with both Guy Mitchell and Ray Price taking his “Heartaches by the Number” to top of the pop and country charts, respectively.
In that same year, Harlan moved to Nashville with his second wife, Jan Howard, and their three children. Soon after, Harlan’s success rate skyrocketed. He enjoyed as many as 15 of his own songs in the country Top 40 simultaneously, a long-standing record. His friendships with young writers such as Willie Nelson, Hank Cochran and Roger Miller further developed his songwriting skills and laid the foundation for the future of country songwriting. They would collaborate in an effort to create the “next big hit” for a number of Opry stars at the time. One superlative song in this stretch was “I Fall to Pieces”, immortalized by Patsy Cline. The likes of Johnny Cash, George Jones and Buck Owens all achieved considerable success on the charts in the 1960s, displaying Howard’s unique ability to write witty love songs (“I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail”, Owens’ 1964 classic) or heartbreaking ballads (Bobby Bare’s breathtaking 1966 song, “Streets of Baltimore”).
Howard’s fortunes took a dip in the 1970s, although he would find sporadic chart success with songs such as Melba Montgomery’s “No Charge”. Throughout the decade and into the 1980s, Howard wrote infrequently, but the mid-to-late 1980s brought greater triumphs for Howard. The Judds’ version of his “Why Not Me” earned the CMA Single of the Year award in 1985, and the Reba McEntire chose his “Somebody Should Leave”, another #1 single in 1985, as the final single from her album My Kind of Country. “Life Turned Her That Way”, a Top Ten record for Ricky Van Shelton, earned Howard his sole nomination for Song of the Year from the CMAs (the song had also received a wonderful treatment from Mel Tillis in the late 1960s).
In 1989, Howard took further control of his career by starting his own publishing firm, Harlan Howard Songs, Inc., with wife Melanie, and leaving his long-term post at Tree Publishing. Howard’s run of hit records continued during the surge of female radio success in the 1990s. “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” helped Pam Tillis’ career gain new traction, becoming her first Top Five single (and a nominee for the CMA Single of the Year) in 1991. Also, the first single for Patty Loveless after career-threatening throat surgery was 1993’s “Blame It On Your Heart”, a #1 smash for two weeks. The tongue-twister, a co-write with Kostas, was named BMI’s most-played song of 1994, and launched Loveless into the top tier of country music superstars.
As a result of his consistency and continuous wealth of classic songs, the Country Music Hall of Fame welcomed him as a member in 1997. Other honors included induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the National Academy of Popular Music Hall of Fame and the Grammy Hall of Fame. His list of 100+ Top Ten singles is an honor roll of country music and its ability to challenge, change or just plain entertain the listener. For Howard, it was easy to determine the ultimate mettle detector of a country song and its prospects for greatness. He maintained that it must be, simply, “three chords and the truth”.
The Harlan Howard Songbook
Above and Beyond the Call of Love/Buck Owens; Rodney Crowell
Blame It On Your Heart/Patty Loveless
Busted/Johnny Cash; John Conlee
Don’t Tell Me What to Do/Pam Tillis
Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got a Heartache)/Buck Owens
Heartaches by the Number/Ray Price
I Fall to Pieces/Patsy Cline; Aaron Neville & Trisha Yearwood
I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail/Buck Owens
Life Turned Her That Way/Mel Tillis; Ricky Van Shelton
No Charge/Melba Montgomery
Pick Me Up On Your Way Down/Charlie Walker; Faron Young
Somebody Should Leave/Reba McEntire
Streets of Baltimore/Bobby Bare
Why Not Me/The Judds
Your Heart Turned Left and I Went Right/George Jones
There are few women in the history of popular music as revered as Patsy Cline, one of the few country legends who has transcended the status of a singer and become a pop culture icon. Almost all of her classic recordings were created in a three-year span, and she only released three albums in her lifetime. However, her fame has grown exponentially since her career was tragically cut short, leaving behind questions of the music that might have been, but also immortally preserving her in her musical prime.
Cline hailed from Virginia, the daughter of a blacksmith and a seamstress. She grew up idolizing Judy Garland and Shirley Temple, and asserted from a young age that she would be a star as well. She also liked country music, being particularly drawn to the hits of Hank Williams. Cline suffered a throat infection as a child that she would later credit as a gift, believing that it was that illness that resulted in her deep-throated voice.
As a teenager, Cline competed in local talent shows and sang on the radio in Winchester. She performed in local country clubs wearing fringed cowgirl outfits that her mother created. A brief marriage in her early twenties to Gerald Cline provided her stage surname, while a later boyfriend suggested using Patsy along with it. She was soon commanding a large following in the Virginia/D.C./Maryland area, and was appearing on the television show Town and Country. She caught the attention of Jimmy Dean, who also frequently appeared on the show, and he became an early champion of her talent. Cline began appearing on the Grand Ole Opry, and she signed to Four Star Records in 1955.
A pure country singer with a sweet tooth for pop hooks. Sara Evans has been one of the most prominent female artists during the male-dominated 21st century, thanks not only to her talent, but also to her ability to adapt to changing times.
She sounded like something out of another era when she burst on the country music scene in 1997, only two years after moving back to Nashville after a stint in Oregon. While she had recorded some sides in the early nineties with E and S Records, she was pretty much starting all over again when she returned to Music City in 1995. But songwriting legend Harlan Howard heard her take on his classic tune “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail,” and was so impressed that he worked actively to get her noticed. Eventually, his efforts led to a deal with RCA Records.