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100 Greatest Men: #37. The Louvin Brothers

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

They would both go on to successful solo careers, but it was the music that Ira and Charlie Louvin made together that earned them a place in the annals of history.

Born in to Appalachian poverty, the Louvin Brothers began their public singing career by performing gospel standards at church.  Their distinctive harmonies and instrumental skills soon earned them a spot on AM radio in Chattanooga.  After Charlie did a brief tour with the Army, the duo moved to Knoxville, where their sound reached a wider audience.

By the late forties, the labels came calling. as did a publishing deal.  The Louvins released a few moderately successful singles before Charlie was sent back overseas, but when he returned, the brothers began incorporating country into their repertoire, a move largely influenced by their appearances on the Opry.   Throughout the fifties and early sixties, they released many of the most significant country compositions of all-time, including standards like the #1 hit “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby” and the top ten  “Cash on the Barrelhead.”

They never abandoned their gospel roots, as reflected in a series of classic albums with a spiritual focus.   One of their essential works was the LP Satan is Real, which became notorious for its vivid album artwork along with its music.   The increasing popularity of rock and roll slowed down their success, which sadly led to an alcohol addiction for Ira, who was encouraged to drop his signature mandolin from their sound.   His deterioration was the primary reason the duo disbanded in 1963.

Both brothers pursued solo careers, with Charlie forging out on his own and Ira performing with his new wife, Anne Young.  Tragically, Ira and Anne were killed in an automobile accident in 1965, preventing a reconciliation of the brothers.   Charlie proudly carried on the legacy of the Louvin Brothers, recording and performing right up until his death in 2011.

As years have gone by, the songs and recordings of the Louvin Brothers have become increasingly influential, shaping the sounds of the Byrds, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, and others.  In 2002, a tribute album by contemporary country, bluegrass, and pop artists was a huge success, winning the Grammy for Best Country Album.   Their sound lives on in the work of every duo built around harmony, from the Everly Brothers to the Judds, their songs have been covered by artists as diverse as James Taylor and Dolly Parton, and their themed albums with powerful artwork are regarded as essential classics by both musicians and graphic designers.

Essential Singles:

  • When I Stop Dreaming, 1955
  • I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby, 1956
  • Hoping That You’re Hoping, 1956
  • You’re Running Wild/Cash on the Barrelhead, 1956
  • My Baby’s Gone, 1958
  • The River of Jordan, 1959
  • How’s the World Treating You, 1961

Essential Albums:

  • The Louvin Brothers, 1956
  • Tragic Songs of Life, 1956
  • Ira and Charlie, 1958
  • Satan is Real, 1959
  • My Baby’s Gone, 1960
  • Sing and Play Their Current Hits, 1964

Next: #36. Ricky Skaggs

Previous: #38. Vince Gill

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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Album Review: Mary Chapin Carpenter, <i>Ashes and Roses</i>

Mary Chapin Carpenter
Ashes and Roses

Mary Chapin Carpenter could be considered an example of the rare artist who releases her best and most significant work right in the midst of her commercial heyday, or whose music might have even benefited from considering the ever-present concerns of what could be grasped by mainstream audiences.  In the years since Carpenter’s hot streak ended – She hasn’t had a Top 40 hit since 1999's “Almost Home” – she seems to have lost sight of the need to bring her thoughts down to an accessible, digestible level.

If you’ve at all been following Mary Chapin Carpenter’s output over the past decade, it should come as little surprise that her new album Ashes and Roses often wants for variance in melody and tempo.  Likewise, Carpenter and producer Matt Rollings back each track with only slight variations on the same soft acoustic coffeehouse folk arrangement.  Still, the greater issue is that the album offers little reward for the listeners who do take a closer listen, and dig deeper into the lyrical sentiments presented.

There’s hardly a memorable hook to be found on this album, be it lyrical or melodic, which means there’s little to help the material make any lasting impression on the memory.  Opener “Transcendental Reunion” has a melodic structure that essentially consists of the same progression of notes repeated endlessly throughout, offering a weak listener payoff.  Even when Carpenter hones in on a potentially interesting idea for a song, the treatment feels vague and underdeveloped.  One such example is “What to Keep and What to Throw Away,” which ineffectively attempts to chronicle the end of a relationship through a one-dimensional series of instructions delivered without any palpable emotional intensity.  “Don’t Need Much Too Be Happy” trades in a somewhat similar variation on Carpenter’s 1993 Lucinda Williams-penned hit, the superior “Passionate Kisses,” but lacks the same layers of character development in its list of polite requests for things the narrator needs.  The James Taylor duet “Soul Companion fails to reach any greater crescendo than a repetition of the title phrase along with a hollow refrain of “I will meet you there.” (Where?)  The fact that Carpenter’s voice scarcely rises above a whisper throughout the set doesn’t do anything to offset the weightlessness of the material, instead adding to the overall dreariness of the record as a whole.

The set’s best-written song is “Learning the World,” which is a wistful meditation on the grieving process – possibly inspired in part by Carpenter’s experience in dealing with the death of her father.  It opens with an interesting personification of grief as if “rides quietly on the passenger side, unwanted company on a long, long drive,” though it still includes the odd throwaway line “I wish I were the wind, so that I could blow away.”  Carpenter also connects more solidly with “I Tried Going West,” which benefits from a stronger semblance of narrative and attention to detail.  Even the songs that are more satisfying lyrically still suffer greatly from lack of heed to the importance of melody, such that listening to all fourteen of the album’s tracks still feels more like a chore than anything else.  By the time you’re only a few tracks in, you’ll find it awfully hard to resist flinging around the word boring.

Of course, many similar criticisms could be, and were, leveled against Carpenter’s previous set, 2010’s The Age of Miracles.  But even then, Miracles included several scattered melodic mood-breakers such as the singles “I Put My Ring Back On” and “The Way I Feel,” which is something that Ashes and Roses cannot claim. 

At this point, it’s easy to wonder if Carpenter will ever make a truly great album again.  It’s extremely disheartening to see such direction being taken by an artist who made such fine music back in her day, with her career-best effort Stones In the Road ranking among the greatest country albums ever recorded.  Ashes and Roses simply lacks the wit, insight, vigor, and substantial connection to everyday life that were the hallmarks of Carpenter’s best work, making it feel less like any form of forward artistic progression, and more like the spinning of wheels.

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The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 3: #160-#141

The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 3: #160-#141

lee-ann-womack-call-me-crazy

#160
“Last Call”
Lee Ann Womack
2008
Peak: #14

Womack’s second-best Aughts song about late-night temptations is still better than a lot of people’s first-best songs about anything. Even in avoiding her drunken ex’s advances, she sounds positively heartbroken, suggesting she’d gladly make the other decision if she didn’t know better. – Dan Milliken

159 Shania Up

#159
“She’s Not Just a Pretty Face”
Shania Twain
2003
Peak: #9

Her motivation for her music has always been escapism, but I love the personal touch she slips into this one. Her late mother is the one who she’s referring to when she sings “at night, she pumps gasoline.” – Kevin Coyne

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DVD Review: Alison Krauss, A Hundred Miles or More: Live From the Tracking Room

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uss-dvd.jpg” alt=”” width=”186″ height=”186″ />Alison Krauss
A Hundred Miles or More: Live From the Tracking Room

The teens and tweens have their Taylor Swift, but for the most discerning music aficionados, Alison Krauss is our Cinderella story. Through the sheer force of a talent both prodigious and boundless, she has become a music icon, despite recording for an independent label and having nary a handful of radio hits to her credit. She’s so well-respected that there’s never a shortage of credible artists who are looking to work with her, and on her new DVD, A Hundred Miles or More: Live From the Tracking Room, it’s quickly apparent just how deep their affection for Krauss is.

Through a series of interviews interspersed with stripped-down musical performances, they testify. James Taylor describes her singing as “hot chocolate on top of vanilla ice cream.” Brad Paisley praises her as “the epitome of what the female voice sounds like,” and declares that if he gets to heaven and the angels don’t sound as good as her, he’s going to ask to come back. Tony Rice bristles with pride that he’s one of her primary influences. John Waite is “just proud to be part of Alison’s world”, crediting her for elevating “Missing You” far beyond its origins.

The contrast between their effusive praise and Krauss’ commentary, where she giggles like a starstruck schoolgirl, is remarkable to watch. But she also reveals the thought process that goes into her recording of material that could be horrifically maudlin in lesser hands. This DVD was originally a television special for promotion of the compilation A Hundred Miles or More, and in my review of that album, I noted how uniformly strong the new tracks were. They walk a fine line between dark and depressing, and Krauss’ interviews here shed some light on how she was able to bring some hope to her performances of them.

The DVD itself is sparse, featuring only nine performances, but each one included is worth the time of even casual Krauss fans. I believe that “Jacob’s Dream”, “Away Down the River” and “Simple Love” rank among the very best Krauss recordings ever, and they are the highlights of this set, though it will probably receive more attention for the collaborations with Taylor, Paisley, Rice and Waite.

It would’ve been nice to see the content significantly expanded from the original television special, and it’s baffling that there is so little information included about the musicians backing her. Still, it was classy of Great American Country to allow this material to be released, as it documents a talent for the ages in what may be the peak of her career.

Video Stream: Alison Krauss & Tony Rice, “Shadows”
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Alison Krauss
A Hundred Miles or More: Live From the Tracking Room

The teens and tweens have their Taylor Swift, but for the most discerning music aficionados, Alison Krauss is our Cinderella story. Through the sheer force of a talent both prodigious and boundless, she has become a music icon, despite recording for an independent label and having nary a handful of radio hits to her credit. She’s so well-respected that there’s never a shortage of credible artists who are looking to work with her, and on her new DVD, A Hundred Miles or More: Live From the Tracking Room, it’s quickly apparent just how deep their affection for Krauss is.
Through a series of interviews interspersed with stripped-down musical performances, they testify. James Taylor describes her singing as “hot chocolate on top of vanilla ice cream.” Brad Paisley praises her as “the epitome of what the female voice sounds like,” and declares that if he gets to heaven and the angels don’t sound as good as her, he’s going to ask to come back. Tony Rice bristles with pride that he’s one of her primary influences. John Waite is “just proud to be part of Alison’s world”, crediting her for elevating “Missing You” far beyond its origins.
The contrast between their effusive praise and Krauss’ commentary, where she giggles like a starstruck schoolgirl, is remarkable to watch. But she also reveals the thought process that goes into her recording of material that could be horrifically maudlin in lesser hands. This DVD was originally a television special for promotion of the compilation A Hundred Miles or More, and in my review of that album, I noted how uniformly strong the new tracks were. They walk a fine line between dark and depressing, and Krauss’ interviews here shed some light on how she was able to bring some hope to her performances of them.
The DVD itself is sparse, featuring only nine performances, but each one included is worth the time of even casual Krauss fans. I believe that “Jacob’s Dream”, “Away Down the River” and “Simple Love” rank among the very best Krauss recordings ever, and they are the highlights of this set, though it will probably receive more attention for the collaborations with Taylor, Paisley, Rice and Waite.
It would’ve been nice to see the content significantly expanded from the original television special, and it’s baffling that there is so little information included about the musicians backing her. Still, it was classy of Great American Country to allow this material to be released, as it documents a talent for the ages in what may be the peak of her career.
Video Stream: Alison Krauss & Tony Rice, “Shadows”
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