Tag Archives: Jamey Johnson

2014 Country Music Hall of Fame Inductees: Hank Cochran, Ronnie Milsap, and Mac Wiseman

Ronnie MilsapGood news for three legends of the genre, one of whom we lost to cancer only four years ago:

Ronnie Milsap, Mac Wiseman and the late Hank Cochran are the newest members of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Wiseman got his start in music after contracting polio as a child, which kept him out of the fields in his native Virginia. He was an original member of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, made his Grand Ole Opry debut with Bill Monroe, was an executive with the influential Nashville independent label Dot Records and a founding board member of the Country Music Association.Milsap, inducted in the modern era category, was an established talent by the time he arrived in Nashville in the 1970s. He’d played in J.J. Cale’s band in the early 1960s and moved to Memphis to work with Chips Moman at the hit-making American Studios, where he worked with Elvis Presley, among others, before accepting an invitation to go to Nashville to record for RCA Records.

It was something of an experiment for Milsap, known as an R&B and rock singer, but he made sure he had a regular gig before he hit town, playing nightly at Roger Miller’s King of the Road Hotel.

He found country fans were open to his style, and he went on to win several Grammy Awards, the CMA’s entertainer of the year award in 1977 and four album of the year awards between 1975 and 1986.

Cochran, who is being inducted posthumously in the songwriter category, probably secured his place in country music history when he got Willie Nelson a songwriting job at Pamper Music by forgoing his own raise.

He wrote the Ray Price standard “Make the World Go Away” and Patsy Cline’s second most-memorable song, “I Fall to Pieces” (following Nelson’s own “Crazy”), among many others.

He died in 2010 of pancreatic cancer shortly after a touching bedside singalong that included friends Jamey Johnson, Buddy Cannon and Billy Ray Cyrus.

Source: Associated Press via CBS News

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A Tale of Two Tributes: Alabama

Alabama-Friends

Various Artists
Alabama & Friends

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To recognize the impact that Alabama has had on modern country music, you could consider their millions of albums sold, their hundreds of awards, their many #1 songs or their induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. You could also look at how the boys from Fort Payne, Ala. have the distinction of bringing something entirely new into country music.

Prior to Alabama, country music was predominantly a land of solo acts, with the occasional superstar duos (Conway & Loretta, George & Tammy) or backing bands (The Strangers, The Buckaroos) thrown in for good measure. Sure, there were plenty of vocal groups (Statler Brothers, Oak Ridge Boys), but actual bands, who played their own instruments, were few and far between in country music. It took Alabama to break down that particular barrier, and they paved the way for groups like Zac Brown Band, Diamond Rio, Eli Young Band and others.

Alabama is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a reunion tour and a couple of well-deserved tribute albums. The tributes are quite different, with one being done under the direction of the band, and the other a completely independent effort.

Alabama & Friends, featuring many of today’s leading country stars, comes off as less of a tribute album and more of an Alabama-themed celebrity karaoke night. Many of the songs have very similar arrangements to the originals, and even include Randy Owen, Jeff Cook and Teddy Gentry on lead and harmony vocals.

Many of the memorable elements from the original songs are still present. The fiddle breakdown in “Tennessee River” (with Jason Aldean), the tempo changes in “My Home’s in Alabama” (with Jamey Johnson) – they’re all present and accounted for. The songs that stick close to the originals aren’t necessarily bad. Luke Bryan, for instance, has plenty of flaws as a country singer, but his vocal abilities are not in question, so his version of “Love in the First Degree” is solid. The same could be said of Jason Aldean’s take on “Tennessee River” and Toby Keith’s “She and I.” There’s nothing wrong with them, but fans who love the Alabama originals might think the new ones are a bit too by-the-book.

There are a few instances where the guest singers step outside the box and add more of their own personality to the recording. Trisha Yearwood, the only female voice on the project, does a lovely job on “Forever’s as Far as I’ll Go,” and “Lady Down on Love” by Kenny Chesney stands among his best vocal performances. The same can’t be said of Florida Georgia Line, who takes “I’m in a Hurry (and Don’t Know Why),” adds their usual amount of noise and clutter to the mix, and makes it sound like every other Florida Georgia Line song ever recorded. While it’s a rare opportunity to hear both Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley sing lead vocals, it raises the issue of whether or not they’ve already run out of original ideas.

Alabama recorded two songs for the first time in 11 years, but they’re the weakest songs on the album. For a band that was one of the first to successfully blend country music with amped-up Southern rock, “That’s How I Was Raised” and “All American” are low-energy, generic rah-rah country disappointments.

high-cotton-tribute-to-alabama-2013

Various Artists
High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama

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High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama, is available from Lightning Rod Records and has a collection of Americana/Red Dirt/indie all-stars doing their takes on Alabama hits. There is some overlap with the Alabama & Friends, but these versions have a bit more of an original feel. “Why Lady Why” gets transformed into a smoldering soul tune by JD McPherson, while Jason Isbell and John Paul White of The Civil Wars completely reinvent “Old Flame.” The Turnpike Troubadours and Shonna Tucker provide a spark with “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” and “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler),” respectively. While neither version is light years from the original, they add energy to a project that leans heavily toward slow and reflective songs.

Two of Alabama’s love songs are recast as duets. While it’s startling to hear Todd Snider as a romantic balladeer instead of a smart-ass hippie folk singer, his voice never quite meshes with Elizabeth Cook on “Feels So Right.” Wade Bowen and Brandy Clark’s duet on “Love in the First Degree” is excellent, however, and raises the anticipation level for Clark’s debut album.

Not every experiment is a success. Once again, “I’m in a Hurry” gets short shrift, as Jessica Lea Mayfield turns it into a funereal dirge. “Lady Down on Love” just does not work as a bluegrass/spoken word ballad, as evidenced by Bob Schneider & The Texas Bluegrass Massacre with Ray Benson. Jason Boland & The Stragglers’ take on “Mountain Music” is fine, but the insistence of aping the original, from the spoken-word intro to the guest vocals from a couple of the Stragglers à la Cook and Gentry is a little cheesy.

It’s a testament to Alabama’s far-reaching appeal that artists as different as Jason Isbell and Jason Aldean would want to sing their songs. Whether it’s a note-for-note recreation or a completely new interpretation of their hit songs, there is something in these two albums to please any Alabama fan.

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We Need to Have a Little Talk about Randy Travis

Randy TravisIn a year that has already brought the deaths of immortal talents like George Jones, Slim Whitman, Patti Page,  and Jack Greene, not to mention the untimely loss of Mindy McCready, it is understandable that the recent news regarding Randy Travis is having the country music fans collectively holding their breath with nervousness and dread.

There is something distinctly different about how I am processing the news about Randy Travis.    The thought of losing him is inextricably linked with a feeling that we’d be losing an essential core of the country music that I fell in love with more than two decades ago.  Now,  I remember Randy Travis from when I was a child.   What little kid wouldn’t be in love with a catchy song like “Forever and Ever, Amen”?

By the time I was old enough to discover country music on my own, he was already something of an elder statesman, despite his young age. As I delved into the history of the genre I was falling in love with, widely accepted concepts like Travis starting the new traditionalist movement and Storms of Life being one of greatest albums of all time had taken root.   The truth is, traditionalism never really went away, and even during the Urban Cowboy years, artists like Ricky Skaggs and Emmylou Harris were having commercial success with roots-based music.

But Randy Travis didn’t just have a bit of success.  He sold millions of records in a time where almost no country acts were doing so, and certainly none who didn’t incorporate pop or rock sounds into their work.   His massive success was the tipping point that made the nineties boom inevitable, as labels saw new acts like Clint Black and Alan Jackson as being capable of superstar status, instead of just being genre favorites that sold moderately well.

He never really got the credit he deserved for this, with the industry treating him like old news despite him continuing to score hits and sell platinum throughout the nineties and early 2000’s.   There are so many great singles that I was around for when they first came out.  “Before You Kill Us All.” “Look Heart, No Hands.”  “Out of My Bones.”  “Whisper My Name.”  “If I Didn’t Have You.”  “Better Class of Losers.”  “The Hole.”   “Three Wooden Crosses.” “Dig Two Graves.”  The list goes on and on.

He’s also responsible, through no fault of his own, for what I call country music’s Messiah Complex.   After he revolutionized the widespread appeal for traditionalism, which led to a solid decade of traditional country artists being signed and succeeding wildly, the sounds began to drift back to pop and rock flavorings.   Since this shift, every slightly twangy newbie has been anointed as the savior of country music.  Lee Ann Womack, Brad Paisley, Dixie Chicks, Joe Nichols, Josh Turner, Jamey Johnson, and Gretchen Wilson have all been shouldered with the burden of being the next Randy Travis.

This has led to deep disappointment when their second or third album struggled, or even worse, to feelings of betrayal when these selected stewards veered away from traditional country music.   All that pressure, and not a one of them even started off with an album in the same league as Storms of Life, though Johnson and the Chicks came remarkably close.

I can’t get my head or my heart around the thought that his contemporary titan might not be with us anymore.  I can’t stomach the coverage that focuses more on his personal troubles than his incredible body of work and peerless impact on country music as a whole.

Please use the comments to share your own thoughts and feelings about Randy Travis.  Also, I recommend reading the Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists piece that Leeann Ward wrote a few years ago.   It’s an excellent place to start for those who are looking to discover the his rich and diverse catalog.

 

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CU's Top Albums of 2012

As reflected by the title of our web site, our choices for Top 40 Albums of 2012 span the farthest reaches of the country music universe.  In previous years, the Country Universe staff has counted down twenty albums and forty singles, but this year our album picks included such a wide variety that we were able to stretch our Top Albums countdown to a full forty slots.  What did we miss?  That’s where you, our readers, come in.  Please join in the discussion, and share which albums you had in heavy rotation over the past year.

 

#40
The Garden of Love – Songs of William Blake

Martha Redbone Roots Project

Individual rankings:  Sam – #12

The combination of a modern soul singer, an 18th-century Romantic poet and bluegrass music shouldn’t work, at least on paper.  However, when there are talented people like Martha Redbone and John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band involved, the results can be fantastic.  Redbone and collaborator Aaron Whitby drew from the works of William Blake and McEuen and a host of talented musicians helped recast the poems as bluegrass songs.  The resulting songs sound more like Harlan County than Blake’s native London, and Redbone’s vocals are gorgeous throughout.  For music lovers, discovering hidden gems like this album is the equivalent of finding a winning lottery ticket on the street. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “I Rose Up at the Dawn of Day,” “The Garden of Love,” “Sleep Sleep Beauty Bright”

#39
Morning Comes
 
Cuff the Duke

Individual rankings:  Sam #11

A 2011 release in Canada, this batch of jangly-rock goodness finally made it over to the U.S. this year.  Cuff the Duke shares some similarities with fellow Canadian alt-country stalwarts Blue Rodeo, so it should come as no surprise that Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo produced the album.  There are bits and pieces of other bands here and there – harmonies like The Jayhawks, a near-eight minute guitar-heavy epic that could have come from a Sadies album – but singer Wayne Petti and his cohorts combined all the elements into one of the band’s best albums. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “Count on Me,” “Time Is Right,” “Bound to Your Own Vices”

#38
New Wild Everywhere

Great Lake Swimmers

Individual rankings:  Sam – #9

Great Lake Swimmers has evolved from a largely one-man project recording albums in an abandoned grain silo to a full-fledged folk group recording in a studio.  Tony Dekker’s songs have a lovely, ethereal quality to them, and they lose nothing from being backed with a full ensemble of violins, banjos, and the occasional fluegelhorn or accordion.  “Easy Come Easy Go” was the band’s first charting single in its native Canada, but with songs like the sweeping title track, there should be many more to come. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “New Wild Everywhere,” “Think That You Might Be Wrong,” “The Knife”

#37
That’s Just Me
Teea Goans

Individual rankings:  Ben – #8

With a rich, emotive vocal style that echoes Pam Tillis, traditionalist Teea Goans nimbly tackles a collection of killer country tunes from the past and present alike.  She lovingly covers classic hits of yore such as “Misty Blue” and “Nobody Wins” alongside solid originals such as the lively “Pour a Little Love On It” and the luscious Jamie Daley duet “That’s Just Me Loving You.”  Nothing over-the-top – simply a collection of quality material well-written, thoughtfully produced, and sung with flair.  What more could a country music lover ask for? - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “Pour a Little Love On It, “Misty Blue,” “That’s Just Me Loving You”

#36
Fear Fun
Father John Misty

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #7

Singer-songwriter Joshua Tillman’s first solo outing since leaving indie-rock outfit Fleet Foxes and his first album under the moniker of Father John Misty, Fear Fun is a throwback to the late 90s era before “alt-country” turned into Americana.  To that end, the album’s title is misleading:  What makes the album so refreshing is its sense of irreverence – Tillman’s refusal to take himself too seriously. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “I’m Writing a Novel,” “Only Son of the Ladies’ Man,” “Nancy from Now On”

#35
Voice of Ages

The Chieftains

Individual rankings:  Sam – #7

To celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary, The Chieftains team up with notables from the indie/folk/Americana sector, including the Pistol Annies, The Decemberists and The Carolina Chocolate Drops. The result is a bouncy, high-energy set that shows that Paddy Moloney and company have plenty of fuel left in the tank. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “Lily Love” (with The Civil Wars), “School Days Over” (with The Low Anthem), “When the Ship Comes In” (with The Decemberists)

#34
Restless
Sweethearts of the Rodeo

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #7

It’s hard to believe that it’s been sixteen years between albums for Sweethearts of the Rodeo.  Their late 2012 release Restless will go largely unnoticed by commercial standards, but not because it doesn’t deserve high praise and recognition. A mix of a throwback to the country sounds of their heyday, and sounding like an extension of 1996’s Beautiful Lies, Restless manages to feel both nostalgic and refreshing, not to mention that the sister duo sounds as good as ever. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks: “You Can’t Hold Me Back,” “Restless,” “Hopeless Rose”

#33
Home
Dierks Bentley

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #11;  Sam #20

Amidst the bravado party anthems and the tongue-in-cheek, Dierks Bentley continues to display his penchant for performing heartfelt love songs and thoughtful reflections. His signature ragged voice comfortably wraps around songs like the reflective “Home” and sensitive “Thinking of You” with ease and sensitivity. Likewise, he sounds just as comfortable letting loose on frivolities such as “Diamonds Make Babies” and “Gonna Die Young.” - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “Home,” “When You Gonna Come Around,” “Thinking of You”

#32
Derelict
John Kraus and the Goers

Individual rankings:  Sam – #5

When he’s

not playing guitar and banjo for the excellent Los Angeles-based bluegrass/Celtic/rock band Rose’s Pawn Shop, Capt. John Kraus sails tall ships. When he’s not doing that, he’s combining his passions by recording an album of sea shanties. Half the songs are traditional sailing songs, and half are new, though it’s hard to tell them apart without looking through the liner notes. The old songs have been given fresh, contemporary arrangements, and the new songs are so spot-on that it’s easy to picture sailers from the 1700s or 1800s singing them. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “Cold in the Ocean,” “Bonny Ship the Diamond,” “Siren”

avett brothers carpenter

#31
The Carpenter

The Avett Brothers

Individual rankings:  Sam – #4

The Carpenter is about as close as you can get to mixing the major-label polish found on the Avetts’s 2009 release I and Love and You, and the reckless abandon found on their independent releases. The Carpenter is again produced by Rick Rubin, but Scott Avett’s banjo returns to prominence, and there is another addition to the “Pretty Girl from…” series (Michigan, in this case). Catchy, sweet songs like “Live and Die” should give the Avetts the same kind of mainstream crossover success like rootsy brethren The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons have enjoyed. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “The Once and Future Carpenter,” “Live and Die,” “A Father’s First Spring”

#30
Unfinished Business
Wanda Jackson

Individual rankings:  Ben – #10;  Jonathan – #15

On 2011’s The Party Ain’t Over, Wanda Jackson too often found herself overshadowed by producer Jack White’s impressive, if show-offy, blend of rockabilly and modern blues. Justin Townes Earle, in producing Unfinished Business, wisely keeps the focus on Jackson, whose feistiness and inimitable presence on record are undiminished by her 60-plus years as a recording artist. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “Tore Down,” “Am I Even a Memory,” “California Stars”

#29
Nashville, Volume 1:  Tear the Woodpile Down
Marty Stuart

Individual rankings:  Sam – #6;  Ben – #19

Featuring a raucous roadhouse jam one moment (“Tear the Woodpile Down,” “Truck Driver’s Blue”), and a straight-up steel weeper the next (“A Matter of Time,” “The Lonely Kind”), Nashville, Volume 1 offers an entertaining fusion of country music past and present from one the genre’s most staunch advocates of tradition.  A solid set of songs along with some unexpected collaboration (Hank Williams III, Buck Trent, Lorrie Carter Bennett) ensure that there is never a dull moment.  - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “A Matter of Time,” “Truck Driver’s Blues,” “Picture from Life’s Other Side”

#28
Original Soundtrack:  The Hunger Games –  Songs from District 12 and Beyond
Various Artists

Individual rankings:  Dan – #8;  Jonathan – #11

A truly weird effort: bleak, rootsy…and tied to a blockbuster movie based on a Young Adult novel. How do you wind up with that combo? Well, get T-Bone Burnett on the job. In truth, Burnett’s vision captures the tone of Suzanne Collins’s tense, disturbing death-match better than the serviceable film does, with songs that explore the heroine’s psyche in complement to the way Collins’s first-person narrative did. - Dan Milliken

Top Tracks: “Abraham’s Daughter,” “Nothing to Remember,” “Just a Game”

#27
Hello Cruel World
Gretchen Peters

Ben – #5;  Jonathan – #16

Dense, poetic, and uninhibited, modern songwriting legend Gretchen Peters turns her inner emotions outward on this deeply absorbing set, ripe with clever yet accessible metaphors (“St. Francis,” “Paradise Found,” “Natural Disaster”) and intriguing character sketches (“Camille,” “Five Minutes”).  Her songwriting chops are formidable enough, but she also brings the goods as a singer with lived-in performances that are layered, expressive, and authoritative. - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “Hello Cruel World,” “St. Francis,” “Five Minutes”

#26
Mindy Smith
Mindy Smith

Leeann – #6;  Dan – #10

Five albums into her career, Mindy Smith revisits the organic feel of her first album, which, thankfully, mostly abandons the pop trappings of her previous project.  This isn’t to say that she has lost any sense of creativity.  In fact, the album hosts a diverse mix of  straight-up country, alt-country, gentle jazz, and soft acoustic songs.  As a result, her stellar self-titled album proves quite worthy of her immense talent.  Three songs are specifically recommended here, but the album as a whole is worth recommendation. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “Take Me Back,” “Everything Here Will Be Fine,” “Cure for Love”

#25
The Time Jumpers
The Time Jumpers

Individual rankings:  Ben – #2;  Leeann – #17

From the warm familiar tenor of Vince Gill to the whine of veteran Paul Franklin’s steel guitar to the Connie Smith-esque vocals of Dawn Sears, it’s a wonder this eleven-piece traditional country outfit even manages to fit so much talent into one room.  On the band’s first proper studio effort, twangy toe-tappers like “On the Outskirts of Town” and “Texas On a Saturday Night” will make you want to get up and dance, but ballads such as the sorrowful “So Far Apart” and the introspective “Three Sides to Every Story” demonstrate that there’s plenty of substance to go along with all the fun.  Simply delightful. - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “Texas On a Saturday Night,” “On the Outskirts of Town,” “Three Sides to Every Story”

#24
And So It Goes
Don Williams

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #10;  Ben – #11;  Dan – #16

Seemingly the very personification of country sincerity, Hall of Fame member Don Williams ably sells material that might scan as maudlin if delivered by a vocalist lacking his restraint and age-earned wisdom.  Williams delivers songs of love and heartache with a recurring theme of optimism on his first studio outing since 2004, with songs like “Better Than Today,” “She’s With Me,” and “Imagine That” seeming like could’ve-been classic hits had they been released a few decades earlier.  A pairing with the exquisite vocals of Alison Krauss on “I Just Come Here for the Music” supplies what is arguably the album’s finest moment. - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “She’s With Me,” “I Just Come Here for the Music,” “Imagine That”

#23
Carry Me Back
Old Crow Medicine Show

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #6;  Dan – #11;  Leeann – #20

A significant rebound from the dreary Tennessee PusherCarry Me Back finds Old Crow Medicine Show delving further into their old-timey stringband persona while still retaining a contemporary, relevant point-of-view. Taking a light-handed but still perceptive approach to matters of war and economic hardship but also cutting loose for a bit of pure escapism every now and then, OCMS prove that they’re not just a band who thought they’d dress like bootleggers and pick up a banjo to mask the fact that they don’t have anything more substantive to say. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “Carry Me Back to Virginia,” “Levi”

#22
Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
Todd Snider

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #3;   Dan – #9

It’s his most quintessentially Todd Snider-ish album title yet, and in some ways, it does feel like his signature piece: loopy-sharp commentary on religion and socioeconomic issues, down-on-their-luck protagonists with hearts of gold or darkness or both. It’s impossible to always agree with Snider the man or even Snider the fable-teller, probably; he puts it all out there so brazenly, with such bold detail, that some of it is bound to repel. But as country-folk troubadours go, there’s hardly a finer craftsman. - Dan Milliken

Top Tracks: “New York Banker,” “In Between Jobs,” “Brenda”

#21
I Like to Keep Myself In Pain
Kelly Hogan

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #2;  Dan – #6

Armed with a voice of extraordinary power and versatility and, perhaps more importantly, with a better ear for quality material than just about anyone recording in any genre, Kelly Hogan is simply one of the finest interpretive singers in contemporary music.  On I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, she tackles heady, complicated songs that hinge on deep emotional conflicts and surprising narrative turns, and she wraps those songs into a take on country music that’s both quirky and genuinely progressive. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “Plant White Roses,” “Haunted,” “I Like to Keep Myself in Pain”

#20
AM Country Heaven
Jason Eady

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #5;  Dan – #12;  Ben – #12

Good, pure country music is not dead! The solid proof is in AM Country Heaven. With fiddle, steel guitar, bass and honky tonk piano aplenty, this album is unadulterated country music that maintains the perfect balance of classic and freshness. Just like any good country album, the songs and melodies are memorable without being covered with a sickening shine, but rather, allowing each song and vocal to stand on its own with the support of tasteful instrumentation that works together to enrich the listening experience. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “Tomorrow Morning,” “Man on a Mountain” (with Patty Loveless), “Lying to Myself”

#19
Edens Edge
Edens Edge

Individual rankings:  Tara – #6;  Kevin – #9;  Dan – #14

Edens Edge teased us with “Amen” in 2011, an adorably written gem with the kind of spirit that’s been missing from country radio since the 90s.  The trio’s debut album is equally charming, built on strong storylines and engaging performances.  Perhaps most impressively, they understand the power of a full-bodied melody, skillfully using its dips, crescendos, and color to convey a range of emotions. - Tara Seetharam

Top Tracks:  “Amen,” “Feels So Real,” “Swingin’ Door”

#18
Sun Midnight Sun
Sara Watkins

Individual rankings:  Dan – #2;  Jonathan – #17;  Leeann – #18

It’s fitting that the cover features Watkins posed like some kind of dark angel, or maybe an ancient Egyptian goddess, big yellow star-glow encircling her head. After a promising debut, Sun Midnight Sun is her moment of almighty ascension as a solo artist, a helping of fiddly folk-pop that is accessible but smart, cute but cutting, steady but adventurous. She duets with Fiona Apple on “You’re the One I Love”; she covers Willie Nelson on “I’m a Memory”; and on the timeless “Take Up Your Spade,” she suggests she might be able to hang with either as a songwriter. - Dan Milliken

Top Tracks: “When It Pleases You,” “I’m a Memory,” “Take Up Your Spade”

#17
Bear Creek
Brandi Carlile

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #2;  Dan – #3

While Brandi Carlile may not particularly consider herself a country artist, it’s obvious that she can aptly play the part when she has a mind to. Not only did she write “Same Old You,” one of the best and most country songs on Miranda Lambert’s latest album, but Carlile turns in a sturdy album with strong country elements in the heart of its songs. From the first addictive riff of “Hard Way Home” to the straight-up twang of “Keep Your Heart Young” to the final notes of the ethereal “Just Kids” and all points in between, Bear Creek is a powerfully sensational experience. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “Hard Way Home,” “Keep Your Heart Young,” “Heart’s Content”

#16
Cabin Fever
Corb Lund

Individual rankings:  Sam – #1;  Jonathan – #4

Songs about gravediggers, cowboys, killers, cows and goth chicks? Must be a Corb Lund album. Lund has never been a predictable songwriter, and the songs on his latest album are no exception. “Pour ‘em Kinda Strong” and “Dig Gravedigger Dig” are more outlaw than any wannabe with a ballcap and a wallet chain can hope to sing. “September” and “One Left in the Chamber” display Lund’s chops as a serious songwriter. And for those who favor the bizarre, there’s “The Gothest Girl I Can” and “Cows Around.” They’re all good, and Lund is one of the few who can combine them all into one cohesive, excellent album. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  Dig Gravedigger Dig,” “One Left in the Chamber,” “Bible on the Dash” (with Hayes Carll)

#15
Leaving Eden

Carolina Chocolate Drops

Individual rankings:  Sam – #2;  Leeann – #10;  Dan – #15

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are so steeped in tradition that it’s hard to fathom how they can sound so classic and modern all at once.  Listening to them, it’s easy to think that it’s all effortless, but the fact is that they’ve trained extensively and know just what they’re doing as a result.  Leaving Eden is an extension of Genuine Negro Jig inasmuch as it ingeniously incorporates commonly utilized instruments with the not-so-common.  In addition to traditional fiddle, cello, and banjo, you can also hear bones, jugs and quills, along with impressive beat-boxing.  Above the impressive, warm and crisp instruments, however, are the wildly soulful vocals of Rhiannon Giddens, particularly on the a cappella “Pretty Bird” and the slow-burning title track.  Moreover, the Chocolate Drops’ energy and passion for what they’re doing is what we are ultimately hearing in this generous offering of energetic and thoughtful string-band music. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “West End Blues,” “Leaving Eden,” “Pretty Bird”

#14
For the Good Times
The Little Willies

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #4;  Jonathan – #12;  Leeann – #13;  Ben – #20

By recasting classic country songs into a jazz house style, the Little Willies prove a powerful truth that genre aficionados have known all along.  The songwriters showcased on For the Good Times – Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Lefty Frizzell, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, Ralph Stanley, Scotty Wiseman – are craftsmen and craftswomen that rival and often topple the legendary writers of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building. - Kevin John Coyne

Top Tracks:  “Remember Me,” “Permanently Lonely,” “Jolene”

#13
Tornado
Little Big Town

Individual rankings:  Tara – #2;  Jonathan – #5;  Ben – #17

On its fifth album, Little Big Town isn’t interested in making a foot-stamping creative statement.  Instead, the group dives into a diverse but thoughtful stylistic grab bag, from the backwoods swamp of “Front Porch Thing” to the shameless accessibility of “On Fire Tonight” to the celestial lullaby of “Night Owl.”  With its shifting spotlight, Tornado reminds us that all four vocalists are skilled in their own right, but never strays too far from the quartet’s defining harmonies, underscored by the album’s a cappella pockets.  While “Pontoon” may be the album’s claim to fame, its signature is “Sober,” an exquisite, arms-raised surrender that pierces like no other song in Little Big Town’s catalogue. - Tara Seetharam

Top Tracks:  “Sober,” “Front Porch Thing,” “Leavin’ In Your Eyes”

#12
High, Wide & Handsome
The Trishas

Individual rankings:  Dan – #4;  Kevin – #6; Sam – #7

Miss the Dixie Chicks and getting antsy waiting for the next Pistol Annies installment? Wish either of those groups would do some good, old-fashioned heartbreak and settle down with all that pill-takin’ and Lubbock-hatin’? Say howdy to The Trishas. This fresh-faced quartet fills their first LP with tasty neo-trad of all different flavors, from the hooky shuffles of “Mother of Invention” and “Strangers” to the lounge-in-Texas aesthetic of “Cold Blooded Love” and “Rainin’ Inside.” But the common theme is love gone bad, and they do it oh so good. It helps that they’ve got Natalie Hemby, Jason Eady and Turnpike Troubadour Evan Felker writing with them. But the knockout punch is their harmonies, which call to mind what a “Cool Younger Daughters of the Pioneers” group might have sounded like. - Dan Milliken

Top Tracks: “Mother of Invention,” “Little Sweet Cigars,” “Liars & Fools”

#11
Blown Away

Carrie Underwood 

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #1;  Tara – #5;  Ben – #16

The hardest-working woman in country music.  She could’ve coasted on the material of others, but she’s put the work in to develop into a great songwriter in her own right, with a distinctive point of view that is becoming just as essential to her artistry as those powerful pipes that made her a star in the first place.  She’s said that “Blown Away,” one of the few songs she didn’t write, set the tone for the album.  What a blessed discovery that song was then, as it challenged Underwood to be bolder than she ever dared before.  She consistently sings about and writes about strong women who refuse to be defined by their relationships with men and who ultimately triumph over the ones who compromise their physical or emotional well-being.  “Good Girl” might be the most obvious cautionary tale to the young girls that make up a good chunk of her audience, but here’s hoping they also hear her calls to reject the media’s narrow definitions of beauty (“Nobody Ever Told You”) and the judgment-free reminiscence of first-time love on “Do You Think About Me.”  Leave it to Carrie Underwood to kill off two men and still preserve her distinctive position as country music’s best role model. - Kevin John Coyne

Top Tracks:  “Blown Away,” “Do You Think About Me,” “See You Again”

#10
Up All Night
Kip Moore

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #3;  Dan – #5;  Tara – #7

Kip Moore is blatantly derivative, über-conventional, and possibly the best thing to happen to FM country in 2012. (Well, aside from that other K.M. sitting atop our singles list.) How’s that work, now? He makes the old feel new again. The magic is two-pronged: first, an excellent tune-sense that fortifies even staid phrases and ideas with infectious melodic power; and second, a sandy-sweet rasp, effortlessly sexy and tender and…well, those are pretty much his two modes so far. But he makes ‘em work like few singers can, resulting in a set of songs that often sound the same, but all in a rather likable way. More risks in songwriting and production could take him to the next level, but even now, he’s the Springsteen tribute we never knew we wanted. Dan Milliken

Top Tracks: “Beer Money,” “Where You Are Tonight,” “Hey Pretty Girl”

 

#9
Long Ride Home
Darrell Scott

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #2;  Leeann – #7;  Dan – #7

It’s naïve to suggest that there are many quick fixes to the mind-boggling banality of contemporary country music.  But pitching the Darrell Scott songbook around town is one of them.  A great songwriter can elevate an entire genre when given the chance, like Kris Kristofferson did in the late sixties and early seventies, and Matraca Berg did in the mid-nineties.  Scott’s latest set is as strong a collection of songs as I’ve heard in the past few years.  His delivery is rough but authentic. We write so often about the great singers we wish could just record better material.  Imagine Blake Shelton singing, “When first I took the ring off, I was surprised to see another ring just underneath, as white as snow can be.”  Or perhaps Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles singing, “I am grounded, oh but I have wings to fly.  I don’t use them, I just look up in the sky.”  Or perhaps some unknown, third-string act just waiting for their chance to prove themselves, walking into a studio armed with a set of songs stronger than anything being pushed by the Music Row publishing houses or our generally overrated “singer-songwriters” on the radio.  Fingers crossed. - Kevin John Coyne

Top Tracks:  “Someday,” “Too Close to Comfort,” “No Love In Arkansas (The Ring)”

#8
Uncaged
Zac Brown Band

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #8;  Tara – #9;  Leeann – #12;  Ben – #15;  Sam – #19

Having secured their spot on the genre’s A-list, Zac Brown Band used their third studio album, Uncaged, as an opportunity to see what they could really get away with.  Even beyond its just spectacular cover art, Uncaged finds the band tackling styles from contemporary bluegrass to Jimmy Buffett-inspired isle rock to campy Quiet Storm soul balladry, all without losing their distinct identity or straying too far from their genuinely good-natured aesthetic.  In the process, they prove that it’s possible to sound authentically “Southern” (if not always “country”) without ever relying on the cheapest, emptiest of signifiers. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “Goodbye in Her Eyes,” “Sweet Annie,” “The Wind”

#7
KIN:  Songs By Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell
Various Artists

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #1;  Ben – #4;  Kevin – #7

As the story goes, Rodney Crowell mentioned poet Mary Karr in his song “Earthbound” on the album Fate’s Right Hand.  After reading her book The Liars’ Club, he had an inkling that Karr might possess the heart of a songwriter – and it turns out that his premonition was right on.  Due to their similar backgrounds, which consisted of hard-scrabble living, they were able to relate in a way that pushed them to create one of the most intriguing albums of the year.  While Karr isn’t a singer, Crowell certainly is.  However, with the exception of four excellent songs on which Crowell sings, they opted to enlist a brilliant cast of known artists to play the roles found within their songs.  Not only do these guest artists play the parts perfectly; in some cases, they even turn in performances that are among their best recordings. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “Momma’s on a Roll” (Lee Ann Womack), “My Father’s Advice” (Rodney Crowell/Kris Kristofferson), “Just Pleasing You” (Vince Gill)

#6
100 Proof
Kellie Pickler

Individual rankings:  Tara – #4;  Ben – #7;  Leeann – #15;  Jonathan – #18

Gone is the glitzy, polished pop-country princess from the American Idol stage. In her place is a poised, sincere interpretive vocalist with a palpable love for traditional country music, as well as a gifted songwriter with a willingness to get personal.  With “Where’s Tammy Wynette” and “Stop Cheatin’ On Me,” Pickler nods to the classic country passed on to her by her grandparents, while addressing her troubled past with “Mother’s Day” and “The Letter (To Daddy),” and channeling her present-day marital contentment with the title track and the broadly charming “Rockaway (The Rockin’ Chair Song).”  With the artistic leaps evident on this project, Kellie Pickler finally comes into her own as an artistic force, while hinting that the best is yet to come. - Ben Foster

 Top Tracks:  “Where’s Tammy Wynette,” “Long As I Never See You Again,” “Mother’s Day”

#5
Thirty Miles West
Alan Jackson

Individual rankings:  Tara – #4;  Kevin – #5;  Ben – #14;  Leeann – #19;  Jonathan – #19

Thirty Miles West is just another solid Alan Jackson album – and there’s nothing wrong with that.  At 54 years old, Jackson is still the most effortless every-man in country music, able to tap into the foundation of human emotion with breezy precision.  From his astute perspective in “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore” to his delightful open-mindedness in “Her Life’s a Song,” Jackson makes honest, relatable storytelling look easy.  Amidst the shuffle of mainstream country artists struggling to do the same, Jackson, thankfully, remains the trusted friend we can turn to when we need to be understood. – Tara Seetharam

Top Tracks:  “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore,” “Her Life’s a Song,” “You Go Your Way”

#4
Wreck & Ruin
Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson

Individual rankings:  Sam – #3;  Leeann – #9;  Ben – #9;  Tara – #10;  Jonathan – #10

Singers/songwriters/spouses Chambers and Nicholson set a pretty high standard for duet albums with 2008’s Rattlin’ Bones, but Wreck & Ruin more than lives up to its predecessor. Backed by fiddles and banjos galore, their voices blend beautifully, from the whimsical “Flat Nail Joe” to the tender “The Quiet Life.” Too many “event duets” (Jason/Kelly, Brad/Carrie) turn into a vocal competition, as the two singers try their best to outshout each other. Wreck & Ruin is a much more low-key affair, but it demonstrates the subtle beauty of a man and woman singing together. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “Adam and Eve,” “The Quiet Life,” “Familiar Strangers”

#3
Calling Me Home
Kathy Mattea

Individual rankings:  Ben – #1;  Leeann – #4;  Kevin – #8;  Tara – #8;  Jonathan – #13

Kathy Mattea may be the one standing behind the microphone, but she allows her home state of West Virginia to be the star of this stellar roots project.  Through deeply heartfelt vocal renderings backed by gorgeous Appalachian instrumentation, Mattea allows us to feel the heartbreak of the bereaved household in “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” as well as the frustration of a rural dweller watching his land overrun by “Black Waters,” even causing us to empathize with entities as simple as a wood thrush and a maple tree.  By turning to her own roots for inspiration, Kathy Mattea creates a career-best album that absolutely soars from beginning to end. - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” “The Maple’s Lament,” “Black Waters,” “Now Is the Cool of the Day”


#2
Sing the Delta
Iris DeMent

Individual rankings:  Dan – #1;  Jonathan – #1;   Leeann – #3;  Ben – #6

She sings of the vital importance of “telling [her] truth” on a heartfelt tribute to her mother that’s tucked away near the end of Sing the Delta, and Iris DeMent spends the duration of her extraordinary fifth album doing precisely that. She structures her songs like traditional Southern gospel hymns, but DeMent isn’t one to adhere blindly to conventions, as she weaves intimate autobiographical details into songs of profound personal and spiritual questioning and insight. Sing the Delta captures, in DeMent’s wondrously plain-spoken way, how faith and love, whatever their forms, are the most rewarding of struggles. It’s the gospel according to Iris, and it should be shouted from the rooftops. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “Mama Was Always Telling Her Truth,” “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” “There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven,” “Out of the Fire”

#1
Living for a Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran
Jamey Johnson

Individual rankings:  Tara – #1;  Ben – #3;  Leeann – #8;  Jonathan – #9;  Sam – #10

Since he quietly rose to fame in 2008 with “In Color,” Jamey Johnson has played the part of our dependable, unbending 21st-century outlaw – sometimes to a fault.  His brand has often felt airtight, his expressiveness always one step behind his authenticity.  Living for a Song, then, does something momentous:  It deconstructs Johnson’s persona and paints him in a sweeter, more accessible light.

Maybe it’s the late Hank Cochran’s exceptional touch: graceful, disarming and frank all at once.  Maybe it’s the pairing of Johnson with a stellar cross-generational cast of characters, who deliver the 16 songs with zest and reverence.  Or maybe it’s simply Johnson’s surprising versatility, drawn from his genuine, careful appreciation of his former mentor.

Does it matter?  The sum of these parts isn’t just an album that pumps depth into one of our generation’s definitive artists, or that pays tribute to one of our finest composers.  Living for a Song did what we sorely needed something to do in 2012:  It took us back to the basics of country music – simple, straightforward and, at its best, achingly vulnerable. - Tara Seetharam

Top Tracks:  “Make the World Go Away,” “This Ain’t My First Rodeo,” “She’ll Be Back”

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2012 CMA Awards: Staff Picks & Predictions

While the rest of the country fixates on “Nashville,” the 46th annual Country Music Association Awards air live from Music City with equal drama and ridiculousness November 1 at 7 p.m. CST. The CU staff picked and predicted the awards below. Chime in with your thoughts, and check back for our live blog on Thursday night!

Entertainer of the Year 

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Dan, Ben, Kevin
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Taylor Swift – Jonathan, Tara, Leeann

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Taylor Swift – Tara, Leeann

Dan: I’ll probably never be able to fully embrace Aldean, but his impact on the genre remains undeniable, and once in a while he releases something like “Fly Over States” that lends some dimension to his hick-rock formula.

Tara: “Fly Over States” will land on my best-of-2012 list (I’m as surprised as you are), but I just can’t get behind Jason Aldean’s overall brand of country, regardless of his impact. That leaves me with Blake Shelton and Taylor Swift, and only the latter put out music to match her star in the eligibility period. Boring category.

Ben: Sadly, this category just keeps getting harder and harder for me to care about.  I could still see Swift taking it, but an Aldean victory is almost certain to happen sooner or later, and I’m thinking this could be his year.  Blake’s turn will come eventually, but not until after Aldean has had his.

Jonathan: Aldean has yet to release anything I’ve liked even a little bit, but this award has increasingly turned into Nashville’s way to say “thank you” to whoever is bringing the most cash back to Music Row, so Aldean is likely due for a pat on the back. On some level, Shelton’s heightened media presence is its own reward, but he’s the most likely spoiler here, since pop crossover stars like Swift rarely pull off repeat wins.

Kevin: Should win: Carrie Underwood. But since she’s not nominated, I’ll go with Jason Aldean, who has been the biggest country artist this past year. I expect he’ll win, too.

Leeann: While it’s completely baffling to me that Jason Aldean has taken off as he has, I wouldn’t be shocked if he won this award. I, however, feel that it’s far more likely that Taylor Swift will win again.

Female Vocalist of the Year 

Should Win:

  • Kelly Clarkson
  • Miranda Lambert – Leeann
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin

Will Win:

  • Kelly Clarkson
  • Miranda Lambert – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift – Leeann
  • Carrie Underwood

Tara: I still believe Underwood’s best is yet to come, but she deserves respect from the industry and critics alike for taking the kind of creative, thematic and interpretive risks she took with Blown Away. Maybe come next year she’ll have more influence; this year, the award is still Lambert’s to lose. (And shout out to homegirl Clarkson, who may have no place in this category, but who gave us the best cover of “Go Rest High On That Mountain” that I’ve ever heard.)

Ben: In my perfect world, Carrie Underwood’s solid new music (which was released within this year’s eligibility period) would nab her the trophy.  Miranda had the most radio success this year, and will almost surely emerge victorious, but I simply can’t endorse the idea of rewarding her for releasing two singles that were easily the worst duds of her career.  Footnote:  Country radio seriously needs to start supporting more female artists.

Jonathan: I adore Kelly Clarkson, and, based upon nearly a decade’s worth of concert performances, I’d argue that she has the best taste in country material of any of the women nominated, and I look forward to the day when she finally records a proper country album. But her nomination here is absurd. Fortunately, she’s not really in the running to win. This likely comes down to Lambert and Underwood. In the past, I’ve championed Lambert for her fearless artistic vision, and I’ve been highly critical of Underwood’s grossly over-praised and over-rewarded output. But, this year, I’d prefer to see Underwood recognized for what is far and away her career-best work than to see Lambert win for what is quite obviously her worst. I doubt the voters will agree.

Dan: Ditto the others, pretty much. Underwood’s taste in material has deepened, but what excites me most is that her interpretive abilities have, too. I never used to feel comfortable with those comparisons to the Trishas and Connies of the world. Now I do.

Kevin: It’s all been said. Underwood’s reached new heights of artistry while still maintaining her commercial relevance. I’d call her one of the best,  but that would imply there’s anyone else in her league right now.

Leeann: Miranda Lambert is still my favorite out of these choices and Kelly Clarkson’s nomination is still confusing to me. I think the award is a toss up between Taylor and Carrie in all actuality though.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:
  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan
  • Eric Church – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Blake Shelton – Leeann
  • Keith Urban

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan – Dan
  • Eric Church – Kevin
  • Blake Shelton – Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann
  • Keith Urban

Tara: Unlike last year’s crop of men, these five at least put out memorable if not entirely thoughtful material in the eligibility period. But Church is the only one who’s had a consistent vision, and what a difference that makes. I don’t see the voters dethroning Shelton, though.

Ben: I expect that the CMA is going to continue shoving the whole “Blake and Miranda are the new Tim and Faith!” idea down our throats, but Eric Church made the best music of the field by far, and country radio finally decided to get on board with it.  Eric Church deserves this.

Jonathan: Church is the only one of the five who has released any strong material during the eligibility period, though I generally remain a fan of Urban’s. It’s hard to see either of those two men winning, though. Urban’s past his commercial peak, and Church is still too divisive a persona. I also think Aldean’s vocal limitations play against him here – see Chesney, Kenny, and his track record in Male Vocalist races – especially since he’s likely to be recognized elsewhere. That leaves Crest WhiteStrips to take on Shelton. I think Shelton gets another win before Bryan’s inevitable coronation here.

Dan: CMA has developed a bad habit of just voting for the incumbent. But Bryan has the most momentum right now, so what the hey; I’ll mix things up and call it Crest Whitestrips 2012.

Kevin: Gonna go out on a limb and say the best one takes it home this year. They’ve got to be itching to finally acknowledge Eric Church, right? Right???

Leeann: Blake Shelton has had a good year. I suppose he has a good, high profile chance of being rewarded for it.

Vocal Group of the Year 

Should Win:
  • The Band Perry
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town – Kevin
  • Zac Brown Band – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann

Will Win:

  • The Band Perry
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum – Dan, Ben, Leeann
  • Little Big Town – Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Zac Brown Band

Dan: Little Big Town’s album is too new, but their sudden momentum could power them to a spoiler win here anyway, depending on who Capitol gets behind. I’ll support them come ACM time; for now, give Zac Brown Band their freakin’ due.

Tara: Zac Brown Band and Little Big Town both put out stellar new music; the only major difference is timing. I support a ZBB win but won’t be disappointed if/when the “Pontoon”-fueled LBT steals this from the most complacent group in country music.

Ben: Zac Brown Band should win.  Lady Antebellum will win. Déjà vu?

Jonathan: As much as logic points to another indefensible win for the most useless act in popular music, and as much as I want to see Zac Brown Band finally earn their long-overdue recognition, I’m calling this one an upset for the also-long-overdue Little Big Town. That karaoke video for “Pontoon” showed off just how deeply likedthey are by their peers, and now that they have the commercial stats, I think that that pervasive goodwill gives them the edge here.

Kevin: I think the red-hot momentum of Little Big Town could put them over the top. Zac Brown Band’s been my pick for a couple of years, but I really think they’re just treading water at this point.

Leeann: Zac Brown Band is far and away my favorite group of the nominees here, but Little Big Town’s talent is undeniable. I’d be happy if either of them won. I’m afraid Lady A will still win though.

Vocal Duo of the Year

Should Win:
  • Big & Rich
  • Love and Theft
  • Sugarland
  • The Civil Wars – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin, Leeann
  • Thompson Square

Will Win:

  • Big & Rich
  • Love and Theft
  • Sugarland – Leeann
  • The Civil Wars  – Kevin
  • Thompson Square – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara

Ben: Because The Civil Wars are good.

Jonathan: Per usual: Merge this category with Vocal Group to trim the fat. The only act here deserving of the recognition is the one with the longest of long-shots to win.

Dan: La la la.

Tara: So pointless.

Kevin: I’m going out on another limb, this time by thinking that the whole “massive commercial success without radio” thing will give the Civil Wars a Mavericks-style victory. I’d honestly rather be wrong in my predictions than be depressed before the show even airs.

Leeann: I don’t think Sugarland has had a particularly active year, but I think they might still win based on name recognition.

New Artist of the Year

Should Win:
  • Lee Brice – Ben, Tara, Leeann
  • Brantley Gilbert
  • Hunter Hayes – Dan, Kevin
  • Love and Theft
  • Thompson Square

Will Win:

  • Lee Brice
  • Brantley Gilbert – Dan, Ben, Jonathan
  • Hunter Hayes – Kevin, Leeann, Tara
  • Love and Theft
  • Thompson Square

Dan: Since none of these artists do it for me, I’d shrug it over to the technically skilled Hayes, who I think could be interesting in the future if he challenges himself to become more than a one-man boy-band. As Sawyer Brown and Keith Urban have proven, sometimes an artist earns their win in this category retroactively.

Tara: Hunter Hayes needs to rein it in a bit, but his chops have potential. Lee Brice needs to find better material, but his performances are believable. “Hard To Love” is one of my favorite guilty pleasures of the year, so I guess I’ll go with the latter?

Ben: Lee Brice strikes me as having the most potential of these nominees, but right now, I think the Brantley Gilbert virus has already spread too far.

Jonathan: Absolutely not.

Kevin: Hunter Hayes is the musical equivalent of those memes that show cats doing people things. He’s putting out real country music, and it’s adorable! All joking aside, I’m pulling for real country music wherever I can find it. Hayes is all I’ve got to work with here.

Leeann: I’m really not fond of any of these choices.

Album of the Year
Should Win:
  • Luke Bryan, Tailgates and Tanlines
  • Eric Church, ChiefDan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin, Leeann
  • Miranda Lambert, Four the Record
  • Dierks Bentley, Home
  • Lady Antebellum, Own the Night

Will Win:

  • Luke Bryan, Tailgates and Tanlines
  • Eric Church, ChiefDan, Kevin
  • Miranda Lambert, Four the RecordBen, Tara
  • Dierks Bentley, Home
  • Lady Antebellum, Own the NightJonathan, Leeann

Dan: Everyone but Bentley’s got a shot, but my hopeful guess is that this is where the CMA will reward Church.

Tara: Chief and Four the Record both made big impressions on me last year, but only the former has held up with time. I’ll be optimistic and predict the CMA will reward its reigning Female Vocalist of the Year over its reigning Group of the Year. (I still can’t get over Own the Night winning a Grammy, y’all. Unbelievable.)

Ben: Church’s Chief is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field, but my gut is still predicting a Lambert and Shelton sweep, though there’s still a chance the voters may decide to reward that dreadful Lady A album instead.

Jonathan: Bright side: This is the last major “Album of the Year”-type award Own the Night is eligible to win. Downside: This is the last major “Album of the Year”-type award Own the Night will win, at the expense of far more deserving competition.

Kevin:  I think Chief really made an impression, and I’m betting it was enough of one to win.

Leeann: I  reflexively assume Lady A will win this award at this point, but I’m hoping for a Dierks Bentley or Eric Church win. Dierks Bentley’s album is quality and I feel Eric Church’s album is interesting and fresh.

Song of the Year

Should Win:
  • “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” – Will Hoge and Eric Paslay – Dan, Jonathan, Tara
  • “God Gave Me You” – Dave Barnes
  • “Home” – Dierks Bentley, Dan Wilson and Brett Beavers – Kevin, Leeann
  • “Over You” – Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton
  • “Springsteen” – Eric Church, Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell – Ben

Will Win:

  • “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” – Will Hoge and Eric Paslay – Dan, Tara
  • “God Gave Me You” – Dave Barnes – Leeann
  • “Home” – Dierks Bentley, Dan Wilson and Brett Beavers
  • “Over You” – Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton – Ben, Jonathan
  • “Springsteen” – Eric Church, Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell  – Kevin

Dan: I think I’m just being optimistic, but maybe the earnest Hoge/Paslay story of struggling for an artistic life will resonate with enough music-industry vets to overcome the bait-ishness of “Over You” and “Home.” Maybe?

Tara: I’d be fine with three of these five winning — and would even argue that, as a composition, “God Gave Me You” is solid — but “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” has the most soul. I’m not entirely sure where the votes will fall on this one, but maybe pop culture’s spotlight on Nashville will mean a win for the songwriters’ anthem?

Ben: I can’t picture this going to anyone but Lambert and Shelton. If the CMA intends to keep working this ridiculous power-couple nonsense, they have created a golden opportunity here, and I highly doubt the song’s awfulness will be any hindrance.

Jonathan: If knowing a song’s tragic backstory is a requirement for finding “meaning” in that song, then its songwriters have failed.

Kevin: I’m hoping the CMA voters sing Shelton and Lambert’s song back to them when filling out their ballots, and pick the strongest singer-songwriter in this race. Bentley’s cut is my personal favorite.

Leeann: I just have a feeling that the bland love song will win, but I’m hoping that the thoughtful  “Home” will prove me wrong.

Single of the Year 

Should Win:
  • Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem” – Kevin
  • Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You”
  • Dierks Bentley, “Home” – Leeann
  • Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
  • Eric Church, “Springsteen” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem” – Kevin
  • Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You” – Ben, Leeann
  • Dierks Bentley, “Home” – Dan, Jonathan, Tara
  • Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
  • Eric Church, “Springsteen”

Dan: Feels like a toss-up, actually. I’d figure “Home” and “Springsteen” to duke it out, but remember that year when “I Saw God Today” randomly won?

Tara: “Home”’s graceful approach to patriotism is lovely and especially appreciated during this infuriating election season, but the song itself lacks spark. “Springsteen” is the better all-around record, and I think it’ll hold up with time, which is a lot more than I can say about the remaining three songs in the category.

Ben: I think “Springsteen” is going to be the song with the most staying power.

Jonathan: As fine a single as “Springsteen” is, I just can’t see the CMA rallying behind a song inspired by the Boss, especially not in an election year. Bentley’s thoughtful and relatively subtle brand of patriotism seems like a far safer bet.

Kevin: I think that Aldean’s track is the coolest sounding record of the five. Surface pleasures will suffice.

Leeann: Please not “Dirt Road Anthem”!

Musical Event of the Year 

Should Win:
  • ”Dixie Highway”- Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band
  • ”Feel Like a Rock Star” – Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw
  • ”Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” – Willie Nelson featuring Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson – Dan, Jonathan, Tara
  • ”Safe and Sound” – Taylor Swift featuring the Civil Wars – Ben, Kevin, Leeann
  • ”Stuck on You” – Lionel Richie and Darius Rucker

Will Win:

  • ”Dixie Highway”- Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band
  • ”Feel Like a Rock Star” – Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw – Ben, Jonathan, Leeann
  • ”Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” – Willie Nelson featuring Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson
  • ”Safe and Sound” – Taylor Swift featuring the Civil Wars – Dan, Kevin, Tara
  • ”Stuck on You” – Lionel Richie and Darius Rucker

Dan: “Roll Me Up” is a little hoot. But “Safe and Sound” had a higher profile, and it gives CMA a chance to be like, “See? We do appreciate the Civil Wars!”

Tara: Every song but “Roll Me Up” feels like it’s lacking something (in Chesney/McGraw’s case, taste), but I think “Safe and Sound” will have enough commercial clout to nab this one.

Ben:  While I’m always happy to see some Alan Jackson love, “Dixie Highway” just doesn’t match the simple charm of Jackson and ZBB’s previous collaboration.  “Safe and Sound” is just such a cool, haunting record – one that brings out the best in both of the acts involved.  But since “Feel Like a Rock Star” has the biggest names attached, I think it’s an easy call that it’s going to win.

Jonathan:“Safe and Sound” is my favorite track here, but not necessarily because it’s a great collaboration. “Roll Me Up,” on the other hand, is a fun standalone cut that feels like a real event, and I appreciate the self-awareness with which the artists toy with their public personas. But it’s hard to imagine more conservative voters being on-board with the phrase, “CMA award winner Snoop Dogg.” The Chesney and McGraw duet quite rightfully bricked at radio, but it’s still the most likely winner here on star power alone.

Kevin: “Safe and Sound” succeeded in pushing the most  mainstream of artists into an alternative country sound without sacrificing the identity of the duo that helped her get there. Plus it actually worked as a theme song to a movie that didn’t exactly lend itself to easy theming.

Leeann: I’d be fine with any of these except for the one that will probably win.

Music Video

of the Year

Should Win:
  • Eric Church, “Springsteen” – Dan, Ben, Tara, Kevin
  • Kenny Chesney, “Come Over”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Over You”
  • Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”

Will Win:

  • Eric Church, “Springsteen”
  • Kenny Chesney, “Come Over”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Over You” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin
  • Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”

Dan: The “Springsteen” video is pretty neato. Oh well.

Tara: The video for “Springsteen” is haunting. I dig it.

Jonathan: The Twilight-hued video for “Over You” is every bit as narrativeless, cloying, and shallow as the song itself, so I’m just going to pretend this is a retroactive win for “Kerosene.”

Kevin:  (…Goes to YouTube to watch videos for first time…) Lambert, you had me until the horse. I’m going with Church, mostly because it reminds me of my own childhood and also Poltergeist for some reason.

Musician of the Year 

Should Win:
  • Sam Bush – Jonathan, Kevin
  • Paul Franklin – Ben, Leeann
  • Dann Huff
  • Brent Mason
  • Mac McAnally

Will Win:

  • Sam Bush
  • Paul Franklin
  • Dann Huff – Jonathan, Kevin
  • Brent Mason
  • Mac McAnally – Ben, Leeann

Ben: It’s Paul Franklin’s turn… and it has been for years now.

Jonathan: It’s not as cool as Chris Thile’s winning a MacArthur Fellowship, but Sam Bush’s nomination for his extraordinary mandolin work is my favorite thing on the entire CMA ballot this year.

Kevin: I can’t vote against the mandolin. I just can’t.

Leeann: I continue to root for the steel guitar.

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2012 CMA Nominations

The list of nominees for the 46th annual Country Music Association Awards has been released.  Eric Church had a big breakthrough this past year, and such is reflected in the nominee list – Church leads the pack with five nominations.  Power couple Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert follow with four each, including a shared Song of the Year nod for their co-write “Over You.”

What’s your take on this year’s field of CMA nominees? Whose nominations were deserved, and whose were not? Who got snubbed? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

The live presentation airs Thursday, November 1 at 8pm Eastern on ABC-TV.  The Country Universe Staff Picks & Predictions will be released the week of the show.  Feel free to join us on show night for some live-blogging fun!

Entertainer of the Year 

  • Jason Aldean
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Taylor Swift

Who’s in:  Kenny Chesney
Who’s out:  Keith Urban

No real surprises here.  This year we swapped out Urban for Chesney, but all of these nominees have been here at least once before.

Female Vocalist of the Year

  • Kelly Clarkson
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood

Who’s in:  Kelly Clarkson
Who’s out:  Sara Evans

Well, I was hoping for some new blood in this category, and that’s definitely what I got.  Pop crossover star Kelly Clarkson scores her first nomination in the Female Vocalist field, displacing Sara Evans.  There will likely be some amount of upset over Clarkson receiving such an accolade, as she had one #21-peaking country hit in the past year with “Mr. Know It All,” but has yet to release a full-length country album.  And…that makes her one of the top five leading female vocalists in the country format?  Okay…

Male Vocalist of the Year

  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan
  • Eric Church
  • Blake Shelton
  • Keith Urban

Who’s in:  Luke Bryan, Eric Church
Who’s out:  Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley

Bryan and Church’s recent career strides are rewarded

with their first nominations in the always-competitive Male Vocalist race.

Vocal Group of the Year

  • The Band Perry
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town
  • Zac Brown Band

Who’s in:  Eli Young Band
Who’s out:  Rascal Flatts (!!!)

Eli Young Band scores a pair of huge radio hits, and thus squeezes out a former staple of the Vocal Group race.

Vocal Duo of the Year

  • Big & Rich
  • Love and Theft
  • Sugarland
  • The Civil Wars
  • Thompson Square

Who’s in:  Big & Rich, Love and Theft
Who’s out:  Montgomery Gentry, Steel Magnolia

New Artist of the Year

  • Lee Brice
  • Brantley Gilbert
  • Hunter Hayes
  • Love and Theft
  • Thompson Square

Who’s in:  Lee Brice, Brantley Gilbert, Hunter Hayes, Love and Theft
Who’s out:  The Band Perry (won), Luke Bryan, Eric Church, Chris Young (So, everyone except Thompson Square)

Album of the Year (Awarded to artist and producer)

  • Luke Bryan, Tailgates and Tanlines
    Produced by Jeff Stevens and Mark Bright
  • Eric Church, Chief
    Produced by Jay Joyce
  • Miranda Lambert, Four the Record
    Produced by Frank Liddell, Chuck Ainlay, and Glenn Worf
  • Dierks Bentley, Home
    Produced by Brett Beavers, Luke Wooten, and Jon Randall Stewart
  • Lady Antebellum, Own the Night
    Produced by Paul Worley and Lady Antebellum

Song of the Year (Awarded to songwriters)

  • Eli Young Band, “Even if It Breaks Your Heart”
    Written by Will Hoge and Eric Paslay
  • Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You”
    Written by Dave Barnes
  • Dierks Bentley, “Home”
    Written by Dierks Bentley, Dan Wilson and Brett Beavers
  • Miranda Lambert, “Over You”
    Written by Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton
  • Eric Church, “Springsteen”
    Written by Eric Church, Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell

Single of the Year (Awarded to artist and producer)

  • Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem”
    Produced by Michael Knox
  • Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You”
    Produced by Scott Hendricks
  • Dierks Bentley, “Home”
    Produced by Brett Beavers and Luke Wooten
  • Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
    Produced by Jay Joyce
  • Eric Church, “Springsteen”
    Produced by Jay Joyce

Musical Event of the Year

  • Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band, “Dixie Highway”
  •  Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw, “Feel Like a Rock Star”
  •  Willie Nelson featuring Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”
  •  Taylor Swift featuring the Civil Wars, “Safe and Sound”
  •  Lionel Richie and Darius Rucker, “Stuck on You”

Music Video of the Year (Awarded to artist and director)

  • Eric Church, “Springsteen”
    Directed by Peter Zavadil
  • Kenny Chesney, “Come Over”
    Directed by Shaun Silva
  • Miranda Lambert, “Over You”
    Directed by Trey Fanjoy
  • Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
    Directed by Declan Whitebloom
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”
    Directed by Michael Salomon

Musician of the Year

Sam Bush
Paul Franklin
Dann Huff
Brent Mason
Mac McAnally

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The 30 Day Song Challenge: Day 26

Today’s category is…

A Song About Time.

Here are the staff picks:

Tara Seetharam: “For the Good Times” – Jamey Johnson

About a man spending one last night with his lover, frozen in the “good times” instead of thinking about the pain that will inevitably ensue. There are plenty of versions of this song that I enjoy, but Johnson’s hits on the exact swirl of genres that just gets to me.

Kevin Coyne: “Pushing Up Daisies” – Garth Brooks

My favorite metaphor about time and the importance of making it count is captured in the chorus of this song.

Leeann Ward: “Wayside (Back in Time)” – Chris Thile

When I looked through my iTunes to find a song about time, as you might imagine, many of them were reflective and conveyed some sort of sentimentality. But I love this breakneck version of Gillian Welch and David Rawling’s “Wayside (Back in Time)” the best.

Dan Milliken: “Time Changes Everything” – Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys

The sweet, simple truth: If you think you’ll never get over being discarded, wait.

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Grammy Awards 2011: Staff Picks & Predictions

It’s hard to believe, but it’s that time of year again: the 2011 Grammy Awards air this Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern. Country music has its hand in the Grammy pot via major nominations for Lady Antebellum, performances by Miranda Lambert, Lady A and Martina McBride, and appearances by Keith Urban, Zac Brown, Blake Shelton and Kris Kristofferson. We’ve picked and predicted the awards below – chime in with your own thoughts, and stop by on Sunday night for our live blog!

Album of the Year

Should Win

  • Arcade Fire, The Suburbs - Dan
  • Eminem, Recovery - Kevin, Tara
  • Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
  • Lady Gaga, The Fame Monster
  • Katy Perry, Teenage Dream

Will Win

  • Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
  • Eminem, Recovery - Kevin, Dan, Tara
  • Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
  • Lady Gaga, The Fame Monster
  • Katy Perry, Teenage Dream

Kevin: In a field of newer artists, Eminem is the established veteran that is overdue for this award. It helps that he also made the best album of his career, as well as of the five nominees.

Dan: I could actually see Lady A coming out on top, since they’ve moved a lot of units and are the least divisive act here. But Recovery was a big comeback, and NARAS likes to use this award as a lifetime achievement thing. I don’t like that tendency, though; I’d rather we just reward the best set. To me, that was Arcade Fire’s ambitious concept album.

Tara: I really respect The Suburbs and really dig Recovery. Both are deserving, but Eminem probably has the edge with NARAS for the reasons stated above. (PS – I’m still not over it. TEENAGE DREAM?)

Record of the Year

Should Win

  • B.O.B featuring Bruno Mars, “Nothin’ On You”
  • Eminem featuring Rihanna, “Love the Way You Lie”
  • Cee Lo Green, “F*** You” - Dan, Tara
  • Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind” - Kevin
  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”

Will Win

  • B.O.B featuring Bruno Mars, “Nothin’ On You”
  • Eminem featuring Rihanna, “Love the Way You Lie”
  • Cee Lo Green, “F*** You”
  • Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now” - Kevin, Dan, Tara

Kevin: Perhaps it’s an instinctual reaction as a native New Yorker, but I still get chills every time I hear “Empire State of Mind.” Jay-Z’s casual “Long live the World Trade” in the second verse perfectly captures how our city moved briskly forward after 9/11 like we always do, but we haven’t forgotten it.

No Urban or Hip-Hop record has ever won this award, so it pains me to predict that Lady Antebellum will triumph over four better records. I hope I’m wrong.

Dan: Cee Lo’s viral novelty hit was one of last year’s biggest delights. I could see this award going to any track but “Nothin’ On You,” but suspect voters will probably go with the least edgy track.

Tara: I could make an argument for four of the five songs here, but I can’t peel myself away from Green’s personality-packed throwback hit that practically begs you to love it. And do I. I agree with Dan and Kevin, though, that Lady A will take this.

Song of the Year

Should Win

  • “Beg, Steal, or Borrow” – Ray LaMontagne
  • “F*** You!” – Brody Brown, Cee Lo Green, Philip Lawrence & Bruno Mars
  • “The House That Built Me” – Tom Douglas & Allen Shamblin - Kevin, Tara
  • “Love the Way You Lie” – Alexander Grant, Skylar Grey & Marshall Mathers
  • “Need You Now” – Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott

Will Win

  • “Beg, Steal, or Borrow” – Ray LaMontagne
  • “F*** You!” – Brody Brown, Cee Lo Green, Philip Lawrence & Bruno Mars
  • “The House That Built Me” – Tom Douglas & Allen Shamblin – Kevin, Tara
  • “Love the Way You Lie” – Alexander Grant, Skylar Grey & Marshall Mathers
  • “Need You Now” – Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott

Kevin: I think the biggest hurdle for “The House That Built Me” was getting the nomination. It really stands out in this field. It used to be rare for the Song victor to not be nominated for Record, but it has happened three times in the last seven years, including last year.

Tara: I’d honestly be happy to see any of these songs win. I’ll back “The House That Built Me” and just take a guess that the voters will, too.

Best New Artist

Should Win

  • Justin Bieber
  • Drake
  • Florence + the Machine
  • Mumford & Sons - Dan, Kevin, Tara
  • Esperanza Spalding

Will Win

  • Justin Bieber
  • Drake – Kevin, Dan, Tara
  • Florence + the Machine
  • Mumford & Sons
  • Esperanza Spalding

Kevin: I dig Mumford & Sons the most, but Drake seems to be the guy to beat.

Dan: I think Mumford has the most potential going forward. They’re got a dark-horse shot at the win, too, though Drake does seem like the most logical choice. Bieber’s by far the biggest name right now, but NARAS didn’t give it to tween-fave forerunners Hanson or Jonas Brothers, so…

Tara: Ditto. Although I have an unexplainable inkling that the Bieber might nab the award.

Best Country Album

Should Win

  • Dierks Bentley, Up on the Ridge – Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give
  • Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song - Dan
  • Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
  • Miranda Lambert, Revolution

Will Win

  • Dierks Bentley, Up on the Ridge
  • Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give
  • Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song
  • Lady Antebellum, Need You Now – Dan
  • Miranda Lambert, Revolution - Kevin, Tara, Leeann

Kevin: I think Bentley made the best record, and perhaps the slew of collaborators will help raise its profile with voters. Usually the country album nominated for overall Album wins this award, but I’m thinking that Lambert’s recent awards streak will continue here.

Dan: I pick Johnson by a nose, but genuinely like every album here besides Need You Now. Hoping Kevin’s right about that one.

Leeann: Like Kevin said, Bentley deserves to win and I hope he does, but I think Lambert’s album may win due to accessibility and her reputation for artistic integrity.

Tara: Up on the Ridge and Revolution both hit my sweet spot: they straddle the line between reverent and relevant and make me genuinely excited about country music’s future. Bentley’s album is the better of the two (and the best of the bunch) – but I think Lambert’s will pick up the most votes.

Best Female Country Vocal Performance

Should Win

  • Jewel, “Satisfied”
  • Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me” - Dan, Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • LeAnn Rimes, “Swingin’”
  • Carrie Underwood, “Temporary Home”
  • Gretchen Wilson, “I’d Love to Be Your Last”

Will Win

  • Jewel, “Satisfied”
  • Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me” - Dan, Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • LeAnn Rimes, “Swingin’”
  • Carrie Underwood, “Temporary Home”
  • Gretchen Wilson, “I’d Love to Be Your Last”

Kevin: This is Lambert’s best shot at a Grammy. Underwood will threaten, as always, but I think the strength of this song makes it tough to beat.

Leeann: Lambert’s signature song is the strongest and likely most long-lasting of the bunch.

Tara: Lambert and Underwood turn in two of the most emotive, powerful performances of their careers, but “The House That Built Me” is undeniably the better song. Since Underwood’s Grammy streak seems to be up for now, I think the voters will side with Lambert.

Best Male Country Vocal Performance

Should Win

  • Jamey Johnson, “Macon”
  • Toby Keith, “Cryin’ For Me (Wayman’s Song)” - Kevin, Leeann
  • David Nail, “Turning Home” - Dan
  • Keith Urban, “‘Til Summer Comes Around”
  • Chris Young, “Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress Song)”  - Tara

Will Win

  • Jamey Johnson, “Macon”
  • Toby Keith, “Cryin’ For Me (Wayman’s Song)”
  • David Nail, “Turning Home”
  • Keith Urban, “‘Til Summer Comes Around” - Dan, Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • Chris Young, “Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress Song)”

Kevin: I am not going to complain about Urban winning again for my favorite single from his last two albums. But Toby Keith is way overdue in this category, and he’s nominated for one of his best vocal performances to date.

Dan: Nail’s nuanced performance brought what could have been a very rote song to life. And his career could use the boost.

Leeann: I think the Grammy voters will reflexively give the award to Keith Urban, but Toby Keith’s song is the most poignant of the nominees.

Tara: Urban’s got his hold on this category, but I’m in Young’s corner. His slow-burning hit is as charming as it is sexy, which isn’t an easy thing to pull off. And that voice.

Best Duo/Group Country Vocal Performance

Should Win

  • Zac Brown Band, “Free”
  • Dailey & Vincent, “Elizabeth”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
  • Little Big Town, “Little White Church”- Tara
  • The SteelDrivers, “Where Rainbows Never Die” - Kevin, Leeann

Will Win

  • Zac Brown Band, “Free”
  • Dailey & Vincent, “Elizabeth”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now” - Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • Little Big Town, “Little White Church”
  • The SteelDrivers, “Where Rainbows Never Die”

Kevin: I think it’s a race between Lady Antbellum and Zac Brown Band, with LA in the lead. But the SteelDrivers get the annual “song I discovered because it was nominated for a Grammy and fell in love with after hearing it” award from me.

Leeann: The SteelDriver’s song is my favorite with Little Big Town at a close second, but I suspect that Lady A won’t be shut out for such a hugely popular radio hit across the board.

Tara: Dear NARAS: since “Single Ladies” got screwed over for ROTY last year, please show Little Big Town some love for their crazy awesome countrified version. It’s just as good…maybe even better?

Best Country Collaboration with Vocals

Should Win

  • “Bad Angel” — Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert & Jamey Johnson
  • “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” — Dierks Bentley, Del McCoury & The Punch Brothers
  • “As She’s Walking Away” — Zac Brown Band & Alan Jackson – Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • “Hillbilly Bone” — Blake Shelton & Trace Adkins
  • “I Run To You” — Marty Stuart & Connie Smith

Will Win

  • “Bad Angel” — Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert & Jamey Johnson
  • “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” — Dierks Bentley, Del McCoury & The Punch Brothers
  • “As She’s Walking Away” — Zac Brown Band & Alan Jackson – Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • “Hillbilly Bone” — Blake Shelton & Trace Adkins
  • “I Run To You” — Marty Stuart & Connie Smith

Kevin: Best collaboration in a very long time. Love hearing an artist from my youth playing elder statesman so well.

Leeann: It’s difficult for me to imagine that “As She’s Walking Away” won’t be rewarded for both its popularity and the significance of the still active veteran, Alan Jackson, dispensing wisdom to the up-and-coming bright stars of country music in the Zac Brown Band.

Tara: I love the groove of “Bad Angel,” but its collaboration isn’t nearly as dynamic nor as fitting as that of “As She’s Walking Way.” I can’t imagine any “wise man” but Jackson pulling up a stool next to Brown in this song.

Best Country Instrumental Performance

Should Win

  • Cherryholmes, “Tattoo of a Smudge”
  • The Infamous Stringdusters, “Magic #9″
  • Punch Brothers, “New Chance Blues” – Kevin, Leeann
  • Darrell Scott, ‘Willow Creek”
  • Marty Stuart, “Hummingbyrd”

Will Win

  • Cherryholmes, “Tattoo of a Smudge”
  • The Infamous Stringdusters, “Magic #9″
  • Punch Brothers, “New Chance Blues” - Kevin, Leeann
  • Darrell Scott, ‘Willow Creek”
  • Marty Stuart, “Hummingbyrd”

Kevin: Punch Brothers are approaching Nickel Creek levels of awesomeness. Possibly exceeding them.

Leeann: Kevin’s right. Even as someone who isn’t typically fond of instrumentals, I dig those of the Punch Brothers.

Best Country Song

Should Win

  • “The Breath You Take” — Casey Beathard, Dean Dillon & Jessie Jo Dillon
  • “Free” — Zac Brown
  • “The House That Built Me” — Tom Douglas & Allen Shamblin - Dan, Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • “I’d Love To Be Your Last” — Rivers Rutherford, Annie Tate & Sam Tate
  • “If I Die Young” — Kimberly Perry
  • “Need You Now” — Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott

Will Win

  • “The Breath You Take” — written by Casey Beathard, Dean Dillon & Jessie Jo Dillon
  • “Free” — written by Zac Brown
  • “The House That Built Me” — written by Tom Douglas & Allen Shamblin – Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • “I’d Love To Be Your Last” — written by Rivers Rutherford, Annie Tate & Sam Tate
  • “If I Die Young” — written by Kimberly Perry
  • “Need You Now” — written by Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott

Kevin: My heart is owned by “If I Die Young”, but I think that “The House That Built Me” is objectively the best song.

Leeann: While The Band Perry’s song sounds the coolest, the writing for “The House That Built Me” is clear frontrunner for the best song of the year.  It deserves and likely will be recognized as such, especially since it was both very critically acclaimed and successful as a single.

Tara: No question “The House That Built Me” is the best written song of the group, and I think it’ll be recognized as such.

Best Bluegrass Album

Should Win

  • Sam Bush, Circles Around Me
  • Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul II
  • The Del McCoury Band, Family Circle
  • Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band, Legacy
  • The SteelDrivers, Reckless – Kevin

Will Win

  • Sam Bush, Circles Around Me
  • Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul II
  • The Del McCoury Band, Family Circle – Kevin
  • Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band, Legacy
  • The SteelDrivers, Reckless

Kevin: Kudos to Loveless for her nomination, but I like the SteelDrivers set more.

Best Americana Album

Should Win

  • Rosanne Cash, The List
  • Los Lobos, Tin Can Trust
  • Willie Nelson, Country Music – Dan, Kevin
  • Robert Plant, Band of Joy
  • Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone

Will Win

  • Rosanne Cash, The List
  • Los Lobos, Tin Can Trust
  • Willie Nelson, Country Music
  • Robert Plant, Band of Joy
  • Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone - Kevin

Kevin: So I think Staples is nominated for an awesome gospel album and Nelson for an awesome country album. This category is confusing.

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Nashville Scene: 11th Annual Country Music Critics’ Poll

The 11th Annual Country Music Critics’ Poll has just been published by Nashville Scene. It covers the 2010 year of country music. The participants of the poll consists of country music critics who spend their time listening to and analyzing stacks of music throughout the year in order to knowledgeably write about it for the purpose of either promoting excellent music or warning against the not so good stuff. Kevin, Dan and Tara are among these prestigious critics.

Each year, invited critics submit their ballots with their favorite music and artists in the appropriate categories. The poll includes the best albums, singles, male and female artists, reissues, live acts, duos and groups, songwriters, new acts, and the over all artists of the year. While the results include the usual suspects, they are mixed with some surprises or names that aren’t commonly associated with mainstream country.

Some of my favorite results include Raul Malo tied at #8 with Gary Allan for top males and Elizabeth Cook at #2 for top females, not to mention Sunny Sweeney’s “From A Table Away” landing at the #3 spot for singles. The most amusing result, however, is Jamey Johnson and Taylor Swift in the top two spots for songwriters.

What’s most fascinating about this process is that the critics have the opportunity to include comments with their ballots. These comments serve to clarify choices and pontificate on the state of country music and its various aspects. There are some insightful comments from both Dan and Tara, along with other critics that you might recognize from our blog roll.

Here are some of the cream of the crop comments that display a satisfyingly diverse array of perspectives:

“Lost amidst the rush to proclaim Jamey Johnson as the man to reclaim country music from pop acts like Taylor Swift is the fact that Johnson and Swift are cut from the precisely same cloth. Johnson is most often championed for the supposed authenticity of his songwriting, but is it really any more believable that he’s been “takin’ dee-pression pills in the Hollywood hills” than it is that Swift regrets not calling an ex when his birthday passed? Both Johnson and Swift have developed public personae and voices as songwriters that trade in the same suspension of disbelief. Swift’s music may not scan as “country” to the extent that Johnson’s does, but that isn’t because she’s any less authentic than Johnson. They both act like they’re “Playing the Part,” and they both do so awfully well.” —Jonathan Keefe, Slant Magazine

“Thank goodness the Internet and satellite radio are around to pick up FM’s slack, because brilliant would-be singles continue popping up on independent releases that Clear Channel won’t touch. My favorite two this year were Elizabeth Cook’s “El Camino” and Chely Wright’s “Notes to the Coroner.” The former: a hilarious country-rap about a creepy, mulleted lothario. The latter: a frank diary introduction from a recently deceased woman. Both: utterly unique and unshakably catchy.” —Dan Milliken, Country Universe

“In 2010, Grandpa told us about the good old days again. The most conspicuous presence on country radio in recent years has been this kindly old gentleman, lugging his aching bones out of bed to share some worldly wisdom. After years of hard labor and heartache, he’s now embarked on a second career as life coach for his hillbilly kin on recent singles from Lee Brice, Billy Currington, Craig Morgan and Alan Jackson (the matured mentor on Zac Brown’s “As She’s Walking Away”). Of course, country radio won’t fool with women over 40 except for Reba, so you never really get to hear Grandma’s side of things.” —Blake Boldt, The 9513

“Despite their two weak singles this year, “Our Kind of Love” and “Hello World,” I remain in Lady Antebellum’s corner. What hooks me is the way they’re able to inject gritty, tangible emotion into the glossiest of production and the vaguest of lyrics. That’s what elevates “Need You Now” to an aching confession, and that’s how, on a song that compares innocence to a condiment, Hillary Scott’s vocal performance alone manages to tell an evocative story.” —Tara Seetharam, Country Universe

“So if country music is doing so well artistically, why is it that whenever I turned on the radio in 2010, I heard mostly pop or rock songs with a token steel guitar thrown into the mix? I’ve long since given up hope of Americana artists ever getting picked up by mainstream radio, and I’ve pretty much come to terms with the fact that Jamey Johnson won’t be getting many (if any) hit songs no matter how good they are. But would it kill them to play some non-hyphenated country music a little more? I know that country-pop and country-rock are the flavors of the month, but where does that leave more traditional artists? I know I’d be more willing to tolerate Jason Aldean rapping or Jennifer Nettles singing with her stupid fake Jamaican accent if “Draw Me a Map” or “Will I Always Be This Way” was next on the playlist.” —Sam Gazdziak, The 9513

“In an August interview with Spinner, Ryan Bingham rejected the notion that he makes country music. Two weeks later, Bingham was named the Americana Music Association’s “Artist of the Year,” thanks in large part to his Academy Award-winning song “The Weary Kind,” a song he wrote for a movie about a country singer. In September, when asked about the state of country music today, rising star Justin Townes Earle told The Wall Street Journal that he’s embarrassed to be from Nashville because of the “shit songwriting, shit records and shit singers who are making a million dollars.” Even mainstream country stalwart Zac Brown distanced himself from the genre, telling American Songwriter in September, “The songs that I write are Southern, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them country.” It’s a shame — and an enormous loss for the genre — that the term “country music” has come to describe something so narrow that bright young artists like these choose not to identify themselves as country. Thank God for Jamey Johnson, who wears the mantle proudly.” —Jim Malec, American Twang

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Crunching the Numbers: January 2011

Feel that chill in the air?  It’s not just climate change, friends.  The music industry is suffering through historic lows in record sales, the worst since SoundScan started tallying them in 1991.

How are country artists faring?  Let’s take a look at cumulative sales for current albums. Sales are rounded to the nearest hundred.

Top Selling Current Country Albums

  1. Taylor Swift, Fearless: 6,233,900
  2. Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift: 4,955,000
  3. Lady Antebellum, Need You Now: 3,138,700
  4. Taylor Swift, Speak Now: 3,078,600
  5. Zac Brown Band, The Foundation: 2,489,200
  6. Carrie Underwood, Play On: 1,937,041
  7. Lady Antebellum, Lady Antebellum: 1,835,800
  8. Jason Aldean, Wide Open: 1,364,700
  9. Miranda Lambert, Revolution: 1,149,000
  10. Rascal Flatts, Greatest Hits Volume 1: 994,600
  11. Sugarland, The Incredible Machine: 815,200
  12. Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party:  766,300
  13. Tim McGraw, Southern Voice: 749,200
  14. George Strait, Twang: 670,200
  15. Kenny Chesney, Hemingway’s Whiskey: 655,200
  16. Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give: 636,000
  17. Rascal Flatts, Nothing Like This: 585,800
  18. Luke Bryan, Doin’ My Thing: 509,200
  19. Keith Urban, Get Closer: 508,200
  20. Brooks & Dunn, #1’s…and Then Some: 479,700
  21. Toby Keith, American Ride: 432,100
  22. Chris Young, The Man I Want to Be: 408,000
  23. Eric Church, Carolina: 380,600
  24. Darius Rucker, Charleston, SC 1966: 376,700
  25. The Band Perry, The Band Perry: 364,000
  26. Josh Turner, Haywire: 361,800
  27. Justin Moore, Justin Moore: 325,600
  28. Easton Corbin, Easton Corbin: 314,000
  29. Toby Keith, Bullets in the Gun: 279,400
  30. Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song: 256,300
  31. Gary Allan, Get Off on the Pain: 238,000
  32. Reba McEntire, All the Women I Am: 224,800
  33. Jerron Niemann, Judge Jerron & The Hung Jury: 222,700
  34. Billy Currington, Enjoy Yourself: 222,000
  35. Tim McGraw, Number One Hits: 220,500
  36. Dierks Bentley, Up on the Ridge: 204,900
  37. Zac Brown Band, Pass the Jar: 202,100
  38. Trace Adkins, Cowboy’s Back in Town: 194,200
  39. Johnny Cash, American VI: Ain’t No Grave: 190,100
  40. Brad Paisley, Hits Alive: 189,200
  41. Alan Jackson, 34 Number Ones: 181,000
  42. Blake Shelton, All About Tonight: 160,700
  43. Little Big Town, The Reason Why: 158,300
  44. Blake Shelton, Loaded: The Best of Blake Shelton : 142,300
  45. Jaron and the Long Road to Love, Getting Dressed in the Dark: 119,700
  46. Josh Thompson, Way Out Here: 107,000
  47. Joe Nichols, Old Things New: 100,700
  48. Brantley Gilbert, Halfway to Heaven: 81,400
  49. Lee Brice, Love Like Crazy: 81,200
  50. Steel Magnolia, Steel Magnolia: 41,000
  51. Joey + Rory, Album Number Two: 34,100
  52. Randy Houser, They Call Me Cadillac: 30,900

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Filed under Crunching the Numbers